US-led forces conducting a crackdown on al-Qaida killed a senior member of the insurgent group who was responsible for the high-profile kidnappings of several Westerners, a military spokesman said today.
The US Embassy, meanwhile, said a rocket attack on Iraq’s heavily fortified Green Zone yesterday killed four foreign contractors --one from the Philippines, one from Nepal and two from India – working for a US government contractor.
It was the third day in a row that extremists used rockets or mortars to hit the area where Iraq’s parliament meets.
US Maj Gen William Caldwell said the killing of Muharib Abdul-Latif al-Jubouri, described as al-Qaida’s information minister, had apparently led to confused reports that al-Qaida’s top leader or the head of an umbrella group of Sunni insurgents had been killed.
Caldwell said the military had conducted numerous operations against al-Qaida in Iraq over the last six days but does not have the bodies of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri and doesn’t know “of anybody that does”.
American and Iraqi forces have stepped up operations against the terror network following a series of high-profile car bombings and suicide attacks that have killed hundreds in recent weeks despite a security crackdown in Baghdad and surrounding areas.
In violence today, gunmen stormed the offices of the private, independent Dijlah radio station in a predominantly Sunni area in western Baghdad, killing two employees and wounding five others, then detonating a bomb that set the building on fire, police said.
AP Television News footage showed damaged furniture and bloodstains near the main gate of the two-story building.
A Sunni cleric, Mohammed Khalil al-Mashhadani, also was shot to death in a mosque in north-western Baghdad, while a mortar attack also struck a residential area in a Shiite enclave in southern Baghdad, killing at least one person and wounding six, police said.
North-east of the capital, gunmen stormed a market in Baqouba, shooting to death a policeman wearing civilian clothes after a militant read a death sentence issued by al-Qaida and two Shiite men. They then killed a policeman after he arrived at the scene to investigate.
Police in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, found nine bullet-riddled bodies - four members of a Sunni tribe that recently joined an alliance against al Qaida in Iraq and five found near the tax office.
US and Iraqi officials have claimed initial success in stopping the execution-style killings usually blamed on Shiite militias, which have largely laid low to avoid confrontations with the Americans during the crackdown. But they have failed to curb the bombings and other violence attributed to al-Qaida and other Sunni insurgents.
Al-Jubouri was killed while trying to resist detention in an operation about four miles west of the Taji, a town near an air base north of Baghdad early on Tuesday, and the body was initially identified by photos, then confirmed by DNA testing yesterday, he said.
Al-Jubouri was believed to have been deeply involved with the kidnapping of Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll, who was released, and Tom Fox, one of four men from the Chicago-based peace group Christian Peacemaker Teams who was found fatally shot in Baghdad on March 10, 2006, he said. He was also involved in the kidnapping of two Germans in January 2006, Caldwell said.
On Thursday, mourners gathered at al-Jubouri’s house in Duluiyah, 45 miles north of Baghdad, as a huge funeral tent was being erected in the street, police said.
Christian Science Monitor Editor Richard Bergenheim said the operation was a reminder of the efforts made to secure Carroll’s release.
“While much remains to be done to improve conditions in Iraq, we appreciate the continuing efforts by the US military and the Iraqi government to make the country a safer place for journalists and citizens alike,” he said.
The Interior Ministry said this morning that al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, had been killed and released photos of what it said was the body of the leader of the umbrella group, which includes al Qaida.
But Caldwell said al-Baghdadi’s death could not be confirmed.
“If that person even exists, again, we have nobody in our possession or know of anybody that does, alive or dead, that is going through any kind of testing or analysis at this point with respect to those two individuals,” he said.
On Tuesday, officials reported that al-Masri, the head of al-Qaida in Iraq, had been killed by rivals north of Baghdad, but the body had not been recovered.
Regarding al-Masri, Caldwell said “we in fact do not have in our possession nor do we know of anybody that has anybody or person at this time that we think is him”.
“His overall status whether he is dead or alive is actually unknown to us at this point,” he added.
Earlier, the US Embassy statement provided no other details about yesterday’s attack that killed the four contractors in the Green Zone, which is home to the US and British embassies and thousands of American troops as well as key Iraqi government offices.
However, the whistle of suspected rockets had been heard passing over the Tigris River in central Baghdad and into the Green Zone on Wednesday evening.
Insurgents and militia fighters routinely fire rockets and mortars into the Green Zone. The attacks seldom cause casualties or damage because they are poorly aimed and the zone contains much open space, but two Americans – a contractor and a soldier – were killed in late March in a rocket attack on the area and two suicide vests were found unexploded less than a week after that.
The adequacy of security in the area also came into question after the April 12 suicide bombing in the Iraqi parliament building’s dining hall. One lawmaker was killed in the blast, which was claimed by an al Qaida-led amalgam of Sunni insurgents.
Yesterday, Rear Adm. Mark Fox, a US military spokesman, told a news conference that the latest round of Green Zone attacks appears to be part of an overall strategy by extremists “to score a spectacular hit or try to obtain some sort of a headline-grabbing direct hit”.
In response to the killings, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo called for a quick reassessment of whether Filipino workers in Iraq should return home.