U.S. Kills a Leader Of Al-Qaeda in Iraq

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 29, 2007

A senior leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq responsible for bringing foreign fighters into the country and seizing and executing U.S. soldiers in 2006 was killed Monday in an American airstrike, the U.S. military said yesterday.

The death of the leader, a native of Tunisia who went by the pseudonym Abu Usama al-Tunisi, represents a "significant blow" to the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is increasingly "fractured," Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson, chief of staff of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, told a Pentagon briefing.

U.S. military commanders in Iraq say that their gains against the Sunni insurgent group may be causing al-Qaeda leaders outside the country to reconsider whether Iraq should remain their main front or whether to shift resources elsewhere, such as to Afghanistan.

"I think they are assessing their ability to disrupt coalition and government of Iraq," Anderson said, adding that, in his opinion, "they're going back to Afghanistan where this thing all originated, and potentially . . . expand their operations there."

Some terrorism experts disagree, however, saying that leaders of al-Qaeda's international terrorist network, such as Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, have always viewed the Iraq war as a way to keep the U.S. military preoccupied so the network could regroup.

"The al-Qaeda strategy all along was to enmesh us in Iraq while it gained strength in Afghanistan, so I don't see that as a change, I see it as a fruition of al-Qaeda's strategy," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

Hoffman said that the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is composed primarily of Iraqis, is "clearly . . . tactically more challenged than it's ever been" because of the U.S. military troop increase in Iraq. But he questioned whether the tactical success would have a lasting, strategic impact.

In a related development, the Government Accountability Office released a report yesterday on violence trends in Iraq for August. It said the data, while not complete, were "sufficiently reliable" and showed that "the average number of daily attacks decreased to 123 in August 2007 -- the lowest level since June 2006 when the average number of attacks was 121 per day." But the GAO report noted that attacks in Iraq normally increase during the month of Ramadan, which this year began on Sept. 13.

The GAO recommended that the Pentagon release detailed reports on enemy-initiated attacks in Iraq to Congress and the public "on a monthly basis" to allow for better tracking of changes in security in Iraq.

In congressional testimony this month, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the military has killed or captured nearly 100 key al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders and 2,500 fighters, leading to "substantial progress" against its sanctuaries.

Tunisi was killed east of the town of Karbala in an airstrike Tuesday by a U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter, according to the military. He was one of 23 insurgents killed and 54 detained in a series of raids south and west of Baghdad between Sept. 12 and Sept. 25, it said.

The U.S. military released a handwritten note that it said was found on the site where Tunisi was killed in which he describes himself as being "surrounded" for 2 1/2 months. Anderson said the note was indicative of an organization in disarray.

"They are very broken up, very unable to mass, and conducting very isolated operations," he said. "And I think what that little note says is that he was very desperate; he wasn't getting the materials, the supplies, the guidance information; anything he needed."

Tunisi -- one of about six to 10 top leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq -- oversaw the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq as well as their operations, which account for more than 80 percent of the suicide bombings in Iraq, Anderson said. But he added that the flow of fighters -- until recently between 60 and 80 a month -- had been cut in half because of tighter controls by Iraqi border guards working with U.S. teams.

The military said Tunisi's group was responsible for capturing and killing Pfc. Kristian Menchaca and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker south of Baghdad on June 16, 2006. The bodies of the two soldiers were found mutilated and booby-trapped three days later along with that of Spec. David J. Babineau, who was killed at a checkpoint.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company