BAGHDAD (AFP) â€” Unidentified gunmen shot dead a local Al Qaeda leader in the western Iraqi city of Fallujah on Saturday, police said, as fighting between rival Sunni factions undermined the insurgency.The apparent assassination of the militant kingpin came as the US military announced that marines and Iraqi security forces had killed seven Al Qaeda fighters during an assault on a truck bomb factory.
Both incidents appeared to be linked to increased cooperation between Sunni factions, once sympathetic to the Iraqi resistance, and the US military, which is encouraging nationalist factions to fight Al Qaeda.
Colonel Tareq Duleimi, a senior police intelligence officer with close ties to Anbar Province’s pro-US tribal coalition, confirmed reports that Muwaffaq Jugheifi had been killed but did not identify the attackers.
Duleimi described the slain Al Qaeda leader as an Iraqi from Fallujah.
A police captain, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Militants riding in two civilian cars opened fire on Jugheifi and his group on Saturday morning as they left the Abu Ayyub Ansari Mosque.” “I can confirm that we know of Muwaffaq, he is known to be behind numerous crimes, including kidnapping,” Major Jeff Pool, spokesman for Fallujah’s US marines, told AFP, without confirming his death.
Fallujah is the focus of a large-scale security operation in which Iraqi police and tribal levies, backed by US forces, are trying to drive out Al Qaeda Islamists.
Saturday’s killing came after the Anbar Salvation Council, the armed wing of the province’s tribal coalition, announced that it was sending plainclothes “secret police” to Baghdad to kill Al Qaeda leaders.
The council, whose fighters include thousands of former insurgents, has fallen out with Al Qaeda and thrown its lot in with US forces. It has sent gunmen to join the Iraqi police and pro-US tribal levies.
Earlier this week, fierce street battles erupted in west Baghdad between nationalist Sunnis and Al Qaeda.
Also on Saturday, Iraqi police and soldiers and US marines killed seven Al Qaeda members in the attack on a Fallujah truck bomb factory.
Acting on a tip-off, they stormed the workshop shortly after sunrise, triggering a two-hour firefight with insugents, some wearing suicide bomb vests.
One of the vests exploded when marines from the 6th Marine Regiment opened fire on five suspected Al Qaeda members fleeing the scene, the US military in Fallujah said in a statement.
In all, seven suspects were killed and eight were captured.
There were no Iraqi or coalition casualties, and two trucks rigged as suicide bombs were destroyed in controlled explosions, the statement added.
Major Pool reported another operation in the northeast of the lawless city, where marines and Iraqi security forces closed off a district, searched for fighters and recruited local men into another levy.
“The operation cleared the section of the city of known insurgents and the combined force installed barriers to limit access,” he said.
“Police recruited from among the community a neighbourhood watch to screen those wanting to enter.” Three children were also reported killed when a US tank opened fire on men believed to be setting a roadside bomb just south of Fallujah. The men escaped and three children were later found dead at the scene.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, the western neighbourhood of Amiriyah was relatively quiet for a second day following two days of fierce clashes between Al Qaeda, rival nationalist insurgent groups, tribal forces, and US troops.
Residents described Wednesday and Thursday’s fighting as an effort to rid the predominantly Sunni neighbourhood of unwelcome Al Qaeda fighters.
The fighting mirrored the situation in western Iraq where Sunni armed groups, who formerly largely opposed the US-led occupation, are turning against Al Qaeda and its pan-Islamist ambitions.
US forces have recently confirmed that they are actively seeking to work with what they dub “reconcilable” nationalist insurgent movements, which are mostly led by ex-military officers and Baathists.
Al Qaeda has issued an Internet statement calling on insurgent groups to cease their internecine clashes and decreeing that “participation in sedition was illegal”. North of Baghdad, police accused Al Qaeda of blowing up a key highway bridge on the road to the northern oil hub of Kirkuk.
“Gunmen bombed this strategic and important bridge and caused a great deal of damage, cutting the road between Kirkuk and Baghdad,” said Colonel Abbas Mohammad Amin, chief of police in Tuz Khurmatu.
The 500-metre Sarha Bridge crosses the Adham River that flows out of the remote Himreen Hills, an insurgent hotbed around 150 kilometres north of Baghdad.
Four people were also reported killed in attacks around Kirkuk, while seven others were shot dead in separate incidents in Mosul.