BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraqi and U.S. forces claimed a major blow against one of the country’s deadliest insurgent groups Tuesday, saying they killed the No. 2 leader of al-Qaida in Iraq who masterminded a brutal escalation in suicide bombings that claimed nearly 700 lives in Baghdad since April.
The attacks also wounded 1,500 in the capital, according to an Associated Press tally.
Despite the reported success, a suicide attacker blew himself up in a police recruitment center in the town of Baqouba, north of the capital, killing nine people. In Baghdad, gunmen killed four policemen. At least 66 people, including four U.S. forces, have been killed in attacks since Sunday.
But the week’s death toll could have been far higher: U.S. Marines intercepted a suicide bomber who had succeeded in driving his explosives-packed vehicle into the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone and reached within a mile of the U.S. Embassy.
The discovery raised concerns about security in the zone, where U.S. and Iraqi government buildings and residences are located. A U.S. military spokesman said the driver of the car was arrested and the military later detonated the vehicle.
The driver was caught at a checkpoint on a road within the zone leading to the embassy, close to the home of Iraqi Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
In southern Iraq, police found the badly decomposed bodies of 22 Iraqi men who had been shot to death and dumped in a field, many of them bound and blindfolded, said Police Lt. Othman al-Lami of the Wasit provincial police. He said the victims appeared to have been killed more than a month ago but their identities were not known. The district — northeast of Kut, about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad — is mostly Shiite.
Abu Azzam killed in gunbattle
The al-Qaida in Iraq No. 2, Abdullah Abu Azzam, was killed in a gunbattle that broke out when he opened fire on troops raiding his hide out in a high-rise apartment building in southeast Baghdad before dawn Sunday, Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman, told AP.
Al-Qaida in Iraq issued an Internet statement denying Abu Azzam was the group’s deputy leader, calling him “one of al-Qaida’s many soldiers” and “the leader of one its battalions operating in Baghdad.” It confirmed the raid but said it was not certain yet whether he was killed.
U.S. and Iraqi officials said Abu Azzam led al-Qaida’s operations in Baghdad, personally planning a stepped-up wave of suicide bombings that hit the capital since April, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. They said he also controlled financing for foreign fighters who entered Iraq to join the insurgency.
If true, that would make him responsible for some of the more brutal attacks seen in Baghdad. According to an AP tally, 698 people have been killed and 1,579 have been wounded since April 1 in suicide attacks in the capital.
Among the attacks was a string of blasts on Sept. 14 that killed some 160 people, Baghdad’s highest one-day death toll from violence. In that day’s most lethal bombing, a man lured day laborers into a van, promising work, then detonated it, killing 112 people.
Attacks rise ahead of constitution vote
Insurgent attacks have escalated ahead of an Oct. 15 referendum on a new constitution that has raised fears of a bloody sectarian split between Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority and the disaffected Sunni minority.
Al-Qaida in Iraq leader, Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, declared an “all-out war” against Shiites this month.
It was not clear what effect Abu Azzam’s death would have on al-Qaida in Iraq. The U.S. military has claimed to have killed or captured leading al-Zarqawi aides in the past and attacks continued unabated — though Abu Azzam appeared to be a more significant figure.
“They’re going to have to go to the bench and find somebody that is probably less knowledgeable and less qualified,” Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters at the Pentagon. “It’s like fighting the al-Qaida network. It will have some impact, but over time they will replace people.”
Abu Azzam was on a list of Iraq’s 29 most-wanted insurgents issued by the U.S. military in February, and had a bounty of $50,000 on his head.
Iraqi government spokesman Laith Kubba warned that insurgents would likely carry out revenge attacks for Abu Azzam’s death. He said the militant “was supervising on a daily basis almost all the attacks that happened (in Baghdad). ... He was fully responsible for preparing and sending the car bombs that killed hundreds of innocent Iraqis.”
Tip led to Abu Azzam
The raid on Abu Azzam’s hideout came after a tip from an Iraqi civilian, and another militant was captured in the apartment, Kubba said.
Abu Azzam — whose real name was Abdullah Najim Abdullah Mohammed Al-Jawari — was previously al-Qaida’s “amir” or leader in Anbar, the vast western province that is the heartland of the insurgency, the U.S. military said.
In spring 2005, he became the amir of Baghdad and was “responsible for the recent upsurge in violent attacks in the city since April 2005,” the military said.
In Tuesday’s Baqouba attack, a suicide bomber with explosives hidden under his clothing slipped into a police building where the Iraqis were applying to join the police. The bomber then set off a blast that killed nine Iraqis and wounded 21, police and hospital officials said.
In Baghdad, gunmen attacked a police patrol that was escorting detainees to the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, killing four policemen and wounding 12 people, including eight prisoners, Police 1st Lt. Thair Mahmoud said.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. military announced that a Marine was killed a day earlier by a roadside bomb in the town of Khaldiyah, west of Baghdad. The death brought to 1,918 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an AP count.
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