A key al-Qaida in Iraq figure involved in smuggling hundreds of suicide bombers across the border from Syria has been killed in a raid in northern Iraq, the U.S. military said Thursday.
The military called the death a blow to the insurgent organization in Iraq, though acknowledged it remains very much capable of carrying out well planned, coordinated assaults with large body counts.
A series of attacks against three hotels and a police crime lab in Baghdad this week killed dozens.
Though past claims by U.S. and Iraqi officials to have captured or killed key al-Qaida operatives have proven wrong, the U.S. military said it had confirmed the identity of the body of the operative through fingerprints and other means.
The man was identified as Saad Uwayid Obeid Mijbil al-Shammari, also known as Abu Khalaf, the military said in a statement.
Moving fighters across border
Abu Khalaf was killed Jan. 22 during a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid in the northern city of Mosul, some 60 miles from the Syrian border. He was killed after he broke free from his restraints and attacked his guard, the military said.
He was believed to have been moving foreign fighters across the border since 2006, the same year a U.S. airstrike killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaida in Iraq.
The military said he also worked as a financier, gathering and distributing money and weapons to al-Qaida throughout the country.
Earlier this week, Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said intelligence indicated there were between five and 10 main insurgent leaders planning the attacks in Baghdad.
Odierno also said there has been a decline in the number of foreign fighters crossing from Syria into Iraq, citing political pressure from Syria and beefed up security along the border.
In an interview Thursday, Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani told The Associated Press that al-Qaida has been hampered by the decreased flow of foreign fighters.
"The decline in the infiltration of terrorists has weakened al-Qaida. But we think that al-Qaida and other networks linked to it are still able to carry out some operations from time to time," he said.
Under fire over security lapses
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has come under fire over security lapses that allowed insurgents to repeatedly strike governments sites in heavily guarded central Baghdad.
Al-Maliki has consistently painted bombings last August, October and December against government sites as being the work of members of Saddam Hussein's banned Baath Party working with al-Qaida in Iraq.
In a sign of government efforts to divert attention to Saddam-era atrocities, state TV broadcast a clip of beheadings allegedly carried out by Saddam's forces in 1998 against members of the militant Shiite opposition faction Dawa, which included al-Maliki as a member.
The video was presented during the trial of 22 suspects accused of roles in crushing Shiite dissidents using groups such as the Fidayeen Saddam, a militia led by Saddam Hussein's eldest son Odai. Among the defendants is former Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and Saddam's half-brother Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan, who served as interior minister.
Aziz was in court despite reports earlier this month that he suffered a stroke. He has already been sentenced to 15 years in prison for other crimes during Saddam's rule. Al-Hassan was sentenced to death in an earlier trial.
"Are you not ashamed of yourselves?" barked Chief Judge Mahmoud al-Hassan, his voice rising with emotion.
"Some of the defendants have tried to close their eyes in order not to see this scene," he continued. "You, as senior officials in the former regime, do you think that those who carried out this act are related in any way to humanity or, you yourselves, related to any religion?"
Fighters dance in celebration
The clip shows several blindfolded men being bent over a low wall as their captors brandish long, curved knives. In the next scene, a Fidayeen Saddam militiamen raises a severed head as other fighters dance in celebration in what the prosecution says is the southern city of Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, Iraq's election planning has been muddied by the banning of candidates for suspected ties to Baath Party. Some Sunnis claim the blacklist is an attempt by the Shiite-led government to undermine their candidates — though the list does include some Shiites.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has asked for a legal ruling on the legitimacy of the vetting panel itself, which is led by a candidate for the March 7 elections, Ali al-Lami. But al-Maliki's government has supported the effort to keep these perceived loyalists to Saddam's Baath party out of the politics.
Al-Lami told The Associated Press the banned candidate list has been reduced from 511 candidates to 456, but still includes prominent Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq. Nearly 6,600 candidates have been cleared to run, he said.
In an interview with The Times of London, the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, noted that others have accused al-Lami's panel of being influenced by Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
"It seems that our decision of banning Baathists has annoyed Petraeus because it was against his wishes," said al-Lami. "We do not work according to Petraeus's wishes, but we work according to the constitution and law. Let him face me if he dares."