BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraqi authorities have captured a senior leader of a militant group linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq who oversaw the 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad and other attacks, the military said Saturday.
The announcement of the arrest, which took place in June, comes as Iraq’s government looks to reassure voters it can keep the country safe before a parliamentary election in March. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made improved security one of the centerpieces of his re-election bid.
Baghdad’s top military spokesman announced the capture of Ali Hussein Alwan Hamid al-Azzawi in a televised news conference that included videotaped statements by a man who identified himself as the insurgent leader as well as lower-level accomplices.
The spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said al-Azzawi was apprehended June 26 in his house in eastern Baghdad.
In the video, the man said he served as a top administrator for the Islamic State of Iraq, a group that purports to speak for various insurgent factions linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq. He also said he worked as a pilot for national airline Iraqi Airways.
“He had direct responsibility for many terrorist operations,” al-Moussawi said.
Authorities linked al-Azzawi to a number of attacks throughout Iraq, including the Aug. 19, 2003, truck bombing on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that left 22 people dead. Among those killed in that blast was mission chief Sergio Vieira de Mello.
The Islamic State of Iraq has claimed responsibility for a number of high-profile attacks in recent months that have shaken confidence in Iraq’s security, including a double bombing Dec. 30 that killed 24 eople and severely injured a provincial governor.
Al-Azzawi was also responsible for maintaining ties between Al Qaeda operations in Iraq and Europe, according to al-Moussawi.
Speaking to The Associated Press after the announcement, al-Moussawi said authorities kept the arrest quiet for more than half a year to ensure the capture of other suspects believed to be linked to him.
Evidence against al-Azzawi included a confession and computer files, the military spokesman said. The man said to be al-Azzawi was shown in a number of photos, including one in which he is seen wearing a uniform for Iraqi Airways.
Officials at Iraqi Airways were unable to say whether al-Azzawi had worked for the carrier.
Al-Azzawi is not the first suspected insurgent to be linked to the attack on the U.N., which along with a subsequent blast prompted the global body to temporarily pull out of Iraq.
In January 2005, Iraqi officials said they arrested Sami Mohammed Ali Said al-Jaaf, a bomb maker who used the pseudonym Abu Umar al-Kurdi and confessed to 32 car bombings, including the U.N. attack.
Separately on Saturday, Baghdad police said gunmen in a speeding car opened fire on a police checkpoint in the western neighborhood of Baiyaa, killing two policemen.