BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP – A shoe bomber blew himself up inside an important Shiite Mosques during Friday prayers, killing at least 10 people and wounding 20, as violence persisted in the capital despite a massive security operation aimed at restoring order.
The imam of the Buratha mosque in northern Baghdad, a leading politician and deputy with the governing Shiite coalition who often spoke out against the late terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, blamed al-Qaida in Iraq for the attack.
The security operation in Baghdad has imposed a driving ban during Friday prayers to prevent suicide car bomb attacks, as well as a curfew. About 75,000 troops are in the streets of the capital.
“They were targeting me for the second time and the prayers also,” said the imam, Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer, in an interview with The Associated Press.
It was the second time the Buratha mosque has been hit in just over two months. It also was attacked during Friday prayers on April 7, when four suicide bombers, including a woman, killed 85 worshippers as they left the mosque after the main weekly service.
The U.S. military blamed that attack on al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida in Iraq leader who was killed June 7 in a U.S. airstrike. The group issued a statement Tuesday vowing to avenge al-Zarqawi’s death and threatening horrific attacks “in the coming days.”
Al-Sagheer, a member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s United Iraqi Alliance, said al-Qaida in Iraq had threatened to kill him in an Internet posting earlier this week.
He said the group accused him of being behind death squads targeting Palestinians living in Baghdad. According to al-Sagheer, the April attack had been preceded by a similar posting.
“Al-Qaida is trying to restore some respect after the killing of al-Zarqawi by targeting a leading Shiite cleric, but they will fail,” he said.
Al-Sagheer said the explosives were inside a worshipper’s shoes, adding that the bomber blew himself up when confronted by the guards as they began searching those with shoes beside them in the mosque.
A mortar barrage struck a commercial area near the Taji air base in the northern Baghdad suburb of Saaba al-Bour, killing at least two people and wounding 16, police Lt. Mohammed Khayoun said.
The streets of Baghdad were largely empty of cars due to a four-hour driving ban supposed to prevent violence during traditional Islamic prayers held every Friday. There also is a curfew from 8:30 p.m. until dawn, and a weapons ban.
The U.S has said Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian with ties to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, has taken over from al-Zarqawi as head of al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Masri apparently is the man the terrorist group identified in a Web posting last week as its new leader — Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, a nom de guerre.
The military showed a picture of al-Masri, who was named in a most-wanted list issued in February 2005 by the U.S. command and who now has a $200,000 bounty on his head.
The violence came a day after Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie announced that valuable information had been seized in raids and declared that al-Zarqawi’s death was “the beginning of the end of al-Qaida in Iraq.”
The U.S. military also said American and Iraqi forces have killed 104 insurgents in 452 raids nationwide since the death of al-Zarqawi.
A key terror leader linked to the deaths of at least seven coalition soldiers in roadside bombs was captured Thursday in Karbala, the U.S. military said.
The military said Iraqi soldiers, assisted by coalition advisers, conducted an early morning ground assault in the Shiite holy city and captured “a high-ranking terrorist network commander without firing a shot.”
The suspect was identified by the military as Sheik Aqeel.
“Aqeel commands a Karbala terrorist network and is wanted for assassinating Iraqi citizens and planning and ordering attacks against Iraqi and coalition forces,” the military said.
The security forces also captured another terrorist in Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, and seized a substantial weapons cache, the military said, adding that no Iraqi or coalition forces were killed or wounded in the operation.
Also Thursday, the 40-member local council in Karbala suspended its operations and demanded an apology after police said U.S. forces raided the house of the council leader Aqil al-Zubeidi, a member of the Shiite Fadila Party, and arrested him and two other council members. Council spokesman Ghalib al-Daimi denied al-Zubeidi had any links to terrorism.
A top government official also confirmed that Iraq has an agreement to take over security responsibilities from foreign forces in southern Iraq this month.
Deputy Prime Minister Salam Zikam Ali al-Zubaie was responding to a Japanese news report that British, Australian and Japanese troops will transfer security responsibilities in southern Iraq to Iraqi authorities next week, and soon withdraw from the area.
“There is an agreement to take over the security responsibilities from the British, Australian and Japanese forces in southern Iraq during this month,” al-Zubaie said. “We hope that the Iraqi security forces will live up to their duties there. It is the dream of all Iraqis that our forces will handle security issues all over Iraq.”
Al-Maliki announced shortly after taking office May 20 that Iraqi forces will start assuming full responsibility for some provinces and cities this month, beginning an 18-month process leading to the eventual withdrawal of all coalition forces.