Iraq reports arrest of al-Qaeda mastermind in '09 bombings

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 22, 2010; 5:09 PM

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi officials said Thursday they have detained the mastermind behind a string of bombings last year that targeted key government facilities in Baghdad.

The disclosure of the March 11 arrest of Manaf Abdul Raheem al-Rawi, the alleged Baghdad leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, came a day after U.S. military officials said the organization's top leader in the volatile northern city of Mosul, Ahmad Ali Abbas Dahir al-Ubayd, had been killed in a raid.

The news of Rawi's arrest and Ubayd's slaying are the latest blows to the Sunni insurgent group. The organization's top two national leaders were killed last weekend in a U.S. airstrike in northern Iraq.

Rawi coordinated the bombings of the Foreign, Justice, Finance and other ministries last August and October, Iraqi officials said Thursday. In Mosul, Ubayd oversaw kidnapping and bribery rings that al-Qaeda in Iraq is said to have operated to finance attacks.

Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said the recent operations against the network have peeled off some of its most dogmatic leaders. The military says "ideologues" are the backbone of the organization, characterizing its other members as "opportunists" and "nationalists."

"This really does degrade their abilities at the ideologue level," Lanza said in an interview.

He said U.S. and Iraqi intelligence officers are sifting through evidence collected after the Saturday night airstrike on the outskirts of Tikrit that resulted in the deaths of top leaders Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

The operations against al-Qaeda in Iraq have come at an opportune time for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is fighting to keep his job after March 7's disputed parliamentary elections.

But Maliki's administration also drew unwelcome scrutiny this week after the disclosure that a military unit under his command operated a secret prison in Baghdad where hundreds of Sunni Arab men arrested in the northern province of Nineveh last year were held incommunicado and in some cases tortured.

The government has said it is investigating the allegations, which were first reported Monday in the Los Angeles Times.

Iraq's human rights minister, who investigated the allegations and reportedly concluded that inmates were beaten and in some cases may have been sexually abused, has said that Maliki was personally unaware of how inmates were being treated at the unidentified prison at the Muthana air base, near Baghdad's international airport. A government spokesman did not answer his phone Thursday night.

The facility includes two known jails, but last fall, after a military crackdown in northern Iraq, the unit under Maliki's command reportedly held 431 Sunni Arab men at an undisclosed location at the base.

Sunni Arab leaders, whom Maliki is trying to court in an effort to form a parliamentary coalition large enough to win him reelection as prime minister, have reacted angrily to the reports of abuse. Maliki's main political rival, the secular Shiite and former prime minister Ayad Allawi, narrowly beat Maliki, largely on the strength of support in Sunni areas.

"We believe Maliki is responsible for this prison," said Dildar Zebari, the deputy chairman of the Nineveh provincial council. Zebari said officials in Nineveh inquired about the whereabouts of men detained last year, only to be stonewalled by authorities in Baghdad.

Khalaf Jasem Muhammad Khalaf, 38, a vegetable seller from Nineveh's Rabiyah district, said he spent four harrowing months at one of the detention facilities at Muthana last year after being arrested in April.

Khalaf said groups of about 12 inmates were packed into small, windowless rooms. Guards tied inmates' hands and blindfolded them before interrogation sessions, he said in a phone interview Thursday night.

"We were tortured and beaten," he said, adding that interrogators used electric shocks and in some instances urinated on inmates.

Khalaf said he did not know whether Red Cross officials visited the prison because detainees were moved around when inspectors came.

Zebari, the Nineveh provincial official, said the government's handling of Sunni detainees, who represent nearly 80 percent of the country's inmate population, could backfire.

"We are afraid the situation in Mosul will worsen," he said, referring to the provincial capital, which has been an insurgent stronghold in recent years. "The citizens who renounced violence will return to it as a reaction to what happened."

Special correspondent Jinan Hussein contributed to this report.

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