WASHINGTON (AP) – A U.S. airstrike killed one of the most senior al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq, a Tunisian linked to the kidnapping and killings of American soldiers last year, the U.S. Central Command reported.
Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson said the suspected terrorist died in a U.S. airstrike Tuesday south of Baghdad. That success and recent similar operations against al-Qaeda in Iraq have left the organization in Iraq fractured, Anderson said Friday.
Abu Osama al-Tunisi was killed with two other terror suspects in a U.S. F-16 strike that dropped two 500-pound (227-kilogram) laser-guided bombs on a safe house where they were meeting, the U.S. Central Command Combined Air Forces said in a news release.
“Al-Tunisi was one of the most senior leaders …, the emir of foreign terrorists in Iraq and part of the inner leadership circle,» Anderson told a Pentagon news conference.
Al-Tunisi was a leader in helping bring foreign terrorists into the country, said Anderson, chief of staff to the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno. Speaking by videoconference from Baghdad, Anderson said al-Tunisi had operated in Youssifiyah, southwest of Baghdad, since November 2004 and became the overall emir of Youssifiyah in the mid-2006. His group was responsible for kidnapping American soldiers about that time, in June 2006, Anderson said.
Anderson did not name the soldiers and Pentagon officials said they did not immediately know to whom he was referring. But three U.S. soldiers were killed that month in an ambush-kidnapping that happened while they were guarding a bridge.
Spc. David J. Babineau was killed at a river checkpoint south of Baghdad on June 16, 2006, and Pfc. Kristian Menchaca and Pfc. Thomas Tucker were abducted. The mutilated bodies of the kidnapped soldiers were found three days later, tied together and booby-trapped with bombs.
Anderson said recent U.S.-led operations have helped cut in half the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, which had been at about 60 to 80 a month. He credited the work of the Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement and U.S. teams.
Commanders have said that the increase in troops ordered by President George W. Bush in January, and the increased combat operations that followed, have pushed militants into remote parts of the north and south of the country. Additional operations have been going after those pockets of fighters. “We’re having great success in isolating these pockets,” Anderson said. “They are very broken up, very unable to mass, and conducting very isolated operations,” he said. He could not estimate the number of foreign fighters in Iraq but said they commit more than 80 percent of suicide bombings in the country.
Anderson said he believes al-Qaeda leaders are taking stock of their ability to disrupt U.S. and Iraqi government activities in Iraq. He said he thought they would shift their attention back to Afghanistan, where they had shelter before the U.S. invasion that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, anti-terror attacks on the United States.
Asked if he had any evidence they were returning to Afghanistan, Anderson said: “Obviously, they had a base there already, and what we would think would be … they would want to expand that base if they can. The question becomes, how much can they?” Anderson said he believes al-Qaeda is “fractured, ruptured, mitigated” in Iraq, “and the question becomes, where would they go? What would they do?” He laid out a series of operations over the last two weeks that led to the air strike on al-Tunisi in the town of Musayyib south of Baghdad. He said associates of al-Tunisi’s were captured on Sept. 12 and Sept. 14 in Mahmoudiya, where coalition forces targeted the network that helps bring foreign fighters in the southern belts around Baghdad.
More associates were captured over the next few days. On Sept. 25, commanders received information of a meeting involving al-Tunisi and other al-Qaeda members. Al-Tunisi’s presence was confirmed by a detainee who had just fled the area before the attack and was captured minutes later, Anderson said.