By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 4, 2006
BAGHDAD, Sept. 3 -- U.S. and Iraqi forces have captured a top al-Qaeda leader who ordered the bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine in Samarra that triggered a wave of ferocious sectarian killings, Iraqi officials said Sunday.
The arrest of Hamed Jumaa Faris Juri al-Saeidi, described by Iraqi officials as the No. 2 leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was the latest in a series of blows to the Sunni Arab insurgent group, believed responsible for numerous suicide attacks on civilians and other deadly violence. The group's former leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed by U.S. forces in June and replaced by Abu Ayyub al-Masri.
"The al-Qaeda organization in Iraq has been seriously weakened and is now suffering from a leadership vacuum," Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, said at a news conference. Twenty senior al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters have been captured or killed based on information from Saeidi since his arrest within the past few weeks, Iraqi officials said.
The Mujaheddin Shura Council, an insurgent coalition that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq, denied that Saeidi was a member of al-Qaeda. A leader of another group in the council, however, confirmed that Saeidi belonged to al-Qaeda.
"But he is not that famous or any sort of leader," Abu Abdullah, a leader of the Islamic Army of Iraq, said in a phone interview from Salahuddin province. "He is only a normal fighter."
Iraqi officials said Saeidi, an intelligence officer for ousted president Saddam Hussein, was captured within the past few weeks as he hid among women and children in an unspecified location just north of Baghdad. Saeidi, who is in his early forties, confessed that he had joined al-Qaeda in Iraq three years ago and is being held by U.S.-led coalition forces, the officials said.
In an attempt to thrust Iraq into a full-scale civil war, Saeidi supervised Haitham al-Badri, an operative under his command, in carrying out the Feb. 22 bombing of a revered golden-domed Shiite shrine in Samarra, officials said. That attack sparked brutal reprisal killings by both Shiites and Sunnis that have left thousands of people dead.
"Why did you kill hundreds of people?" Saeidi was asked during a recent interrogation, according to Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman.
"What do you mean 'hundreds of people?' I've killed thousands," Dabbagh said Saeidi responded.
If the Iraqi government's depiction of Saeidi is accurate, he would be the highest-ranking al-Qaeda in Iraq figure killed or captured since June 7, when U.S. forces killed Zarqawi by dropping two 500-pound bombs on his hideout north of Baghdad.
A U.S. military official said Saeidi was "one of the top five al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders" but declined to identify him as the second-highest official in the group. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the Geneva Conventions could be construed as forbidding the public discussion of detainees.
In a statement posted on the wall of the al-Tameem Mosque near Ramadi, where there is strong support for al-Qaeda, the Shura Council attacked government officials and denied that Saeidi, also known as Abu Humam or Abu Rana, was a member of al-Qaeda.
"We swear to God, this is from their sick minds in an attempt to make the people believe a fake victory," the statement said. "It is no more than names from their imagination and the devils whispering to them in the Green Zone."
In an interview after his news conference, Rubaie dismissed the statement and said that Saeidi told interrogators he had fought to replace Zarqawi but lost out to Masri, the current leader. Rubaie also said Saeidi had admitted to overseeing al-Qaeda operations in Baghdad and Diyala and Salahuddin provinces.
"He was in charge of more than half of al-Qaeda in Iraq," Rubaie said.
Saeidi financed the group's operations by ambushing Iraqi security forces after they collected their salaries from the bank and by kidnapping civilians for ransom, Rubaie said.
Dabbagh said late Sunday night that Saeidi had been captured within the past few weeks, and that Rubaie had misspoken at the news conference when he said the arrest took place several days ago.
After authorities finish interrogating him, Saeidi will face charges including "mass killings of Iraqis," Dabbagh said.
Despite repeated strikes on the leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group's diffuse cells have continued to launch deadly attacks throughout the country. "It's a very decentralized organization with a lot of local leaders, so that makes it much harder to strike crippling blows," Daniel L. Byman, director of Georgetown University's Security Studies Program, said in a phone interview from Washington.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say the greatest threat to security in the country is not insurgent attacks on American forces but tit-for-tat killings by the country's various sects. "Sustained ethno-sectarian violence is the greatest threat to security and stability in Iraq," according to a Pentagon report released Friday.
Simmering anger directed by Arabs toward Kurds reached a boiling point this weekend after the Kurdish regional government issued an order forbidding the Iraqi flag to be raised in government buildings across the north. The decree allowed the display of only the Kurdish flag, an assertion of independence interpreted by some as a rebuke of attempts to prevent Iraq from breaking apart.
"The current flag of Iraq is the only one which should be raised over every foot of the land of Iraq," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a statement.
In a speech before the Kurdish parliament Sunday, Massoud Barzani, president of the regional government in Kurdish-populated northern Iraq, said the region would not be intimidated by other areas of Iraq and that it retained the option to express independence. "We will not be in an Iraq ruled by a dictator, a fascist or any one sect," he said.
Meanwhile, six mortars fell near the mainly Shiite Sadr City area of Baghdad, killing seven people and wounding 12, police said. Fourteen people were also killed in violence in and around Baqubah, 35 miles northeast of the capital, police said.
The U.S. military on Sunday announced the deaths of four service members. In Baghdad, two soldiers were killed Sunday morning when their vehicle was hit by a bomb. In Anbar province, a volatile Sunni insurgent stronghold, a Marine assigned to Regimental Combat Team 7 was killed in combat Sunday, and another assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5 died in combat Friday.
Researcher Rena Kirsch in Washington, special correspondents Naseer Nouri and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.