BAGHDAD (AP) â€” Authorities on Sunday announced the capture of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s No. 2 leader, who they blame for â€œbrutal and mercilessâ€ terror operations, including the bombing of a Shiite shrine last winter that touched off months of sectarian bloodletting and pushed Iraq towards civil war.
Across the country, at least 20 Iraqis died in bomb attacks and shootings, and the US military command said two US soldiers and two Marines had been killed.
Tension also rose between Baghdad and the country’s Kurdish north, after the autonomous region’s president threatened secession and ordered the Iraqi national flag be replaced by the Kurdish one.
The arrest a few days ago of Hamed Jumaa Farid Saeedi, known as Abu Humam or Abu Rana, has left Al Qaeda in Iraq suffering a â€œserious leadership crisisâ€,Â national security adviser Mouwafak Rubaie said. â€œOur troops have dealt fatal and painful blows to this organisation.â€ Saeedi supervised the creation of death squads and ordered assassinations, bombings, kidnappings and attacks on Iraqi police and army checkpoints, Rubaie said. â€œThe operations were brutal and merciless.â€ Saeedi’s capture â€œwill affect Al Qaeda in Iraq and its operations against our people, especially those aimed at inciting sectarian strifeâ€, Rubaie said.
Not much is known about Saeedi, but Rubaie said he was the second most important Al Qaeda in Iraq leader after Abu Ayyoub Masri.
Masri is believed to have taken over the group after a US air strike killed leader Abu Mussab Zarqawi north of Baghdad on June 7.
â€œThis is a very important development,â€ said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh on CNN’s â€œLate Edition.â€
Â â€œDeliberate intelligence work, both by Iraqi forces as well as the multinational forces, have dealt a very severe blow to Al Qaeda organisation in Iraq,â€ Saleh said. â€œIt is also significant because this man is believed to have been responsible for the attack on the shrines in Samarra, which led to the sectarian violence that we have seen.â€
The February bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra, 95 kilometres north of Baghdad, inflamed tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims and triggered reprisal attacks that have killed hundreds of Iraqis and continue to this day.
Rubaie said Saeedi was â€œdirectly responsibleâ€ for Haitham Sabah Shaker Mohammed Badri, the person who carried out the bombing.
A senior coalition official told the Associated Press that coalition forces were involved in Saeedi’s arrest, but would not give details on what role they played.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because announcements were being made by Iraqi authorities, the official said Saeedi had been arrested along with three other people southwest of Baqouba, a city 60 kilometres northeast of Baghdad. Zarqawi was killed on the outskirts of Baqouba.
Saeedi â€œclaims to be responsible for more attacks than he can rememberâ€ and has been involved in the insurgency almost from its beginning three years ago, the official said.
Rubaie said Saeedi gave information that led to the capture or death of 11 other top Al Qaeda in Iraq figures and nine lower-level members. He said those arrested included non-Iraqi Arabs, but would not give any further information for security reasons.
The US-led coalition has announced numerous arrests after Zarqawi was killed that officials claim have thrown Al Qaeda in Iraq into disarray.
But rampant sectarian violence and other attacks have continued.
A bomb exploded at an accessories market in Khalis, 80 kilometres north of Baghdad, on Sunday evening, killing four people and wounding 21, including at least one child, the province’s police said.
In Baqouba,Â gunmen shot three policemen, killing two of them and wounding the third, while elsewhere in the city, a car bomb killed three people, police said.
The US military command announced that four US troops had been killed â€” two in a Baghdad explosion on Sunday and two in separate incidents in the volatile Anbar province, one Sunday and one Friday.
Tensions also brewed in the north, after the president of the Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, threatened secession Sunday. On Friday, he had ordered the Iraqi flag to be replaced with the Kurdish one, sparking harsh words in Baghdad.
â€œIf we want to separate, we will do it, without hesitation or fears,â€ he said during an address to the Kurdish parliament.
The Kurdish region gradually has been gaining more autonomy since the 2003 US-led invasion, and Sunni Arabs fear the Kurds are pushing for independence.
Prime Minister Nuri Maliki issued a terse statement saying only the national flag should be hoisted throughout the country.
â€œThe current Iraqi flag is the only one which must be hoisted on each bit of Iraq’s land until a decision is adopted by the parliament according to the constitution,â€ the statement said.
In other violence across Iraq, according to police:
â€” An overnight mortar attack east of Baghdad killed six people, including two children, and wounded 15.
â€” A roadside bomb targeting a police patrol in eastern Baghdad killed two policemen and a civilian and wounded three policemen.
â€” A civilian was gunned down and killed in a drive-by shooting in Amarah, 320 kilometres southeast of Baghdad.
â€” In Mosul, 360 kilometres northwest of Baghdad, a suicide car bomb targeting a police patrol killed two policemen and wounded five people.