BAGHDAD (AP) – U.S. troops killed the al-Qaeda mastermind of bombings at a prized Shiite shrine, and at least 13 people died when mortars rained down on their Baghdad neighborhood, official said Sunday.
Haitham Sabah Shaker Mohammed al-Badri was the al-Qaeda in Iraq emir of Salahuddin province, and the figure responsible for two bombings at the Golden Dome mosque in Samarra, the U.S. military said. He died in a U.S. operation east of Samarra on Thursday, though his death was announced three days later.
“Al-Badri’s body was positively identified by close associates and family members,” Rear Adm. Mark Fox, a U.S. military spokesman, told reporters Sunday.
Al-Badri had been a suspect in a June 13 attack which toppled the Askariya shrine’s twin minarets, as well as in an earlier bombing, in February 2006, which destroyed the same mosque’s golden dome and set in motion an unrelenting cycle of retaliatory sectarian bloodletting.
Fox said U.S. aircraft spotted al-Badri among insurgents moving into “tactical fighting positions” on the ground. “From the surveillance that was going on, it looked like they were setting up an ambush,” he told reporters in the heavily guarded Green Zone. “So they brought in rotary wing and close air support and there was some strafing that occurred from helicopters,” he said.
Another 80 suspects were detained in U.S. and Iraqi raids in the Samarra area over the past week, the U.S. military said in a statement. More than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and police took part in the giant operation, backed by U.S. paratroopers, it said.
Meanwhile, 13 people were killed early Sunday morning and 14 wounded by mortar shells in southeast Baghdad, police said.
At least three mortars hit the Mashtal area on the eastern side of the Tigris River, a police officer said on condition of anonymity out of security concerns. It was unclear whether they were aimed at the area, or whether the shells fell short of their intended targeted.
Police and witnesses said two of the mortar shells landed near a gas station where people were lining up for fuel at the start of the work week. Many of the victims were burned by fuel that burst into flames from the attack, the officer said.
Associated Press Television footage showed at least two cars with their windshields and windows shattered. The tail fin of a mortar shell was lodged in the ground nearby. Pools of blood soaked into the dusty ground outside crude cement block homes.
“Shrapnel hit my front window…then two explosions took place,” said minibus driver Ali Abdul-Karim, 28. “Me and other drivers ran fast toward the sound of the explosions, to help evacuate the victims.”
Abdul-Karim described a ghastly scene, with rescuers scurrying to discern the wounded from the dead. “I saw two elderly women bleeding and laying on the ground. I don’t know whether they were injured or dead,” he said. “I also saw three seriously wounded boys laying near their jerry cans. A man was running and screaming, with his hands on his belly, which was cut by shrapnel.” The wounded lay bandaged on gurneys at a nearby hospital.
Male relatives of the victims, many in clothes stained with their loved ones’ blood, milled around outside the neighboring morgue, where at least eleven bodies were visible on metal shelves.
Mashtal is a Shiite-dominated neighborhood in southeast Baghdad. Its main intersection, where the gas station is located, leads to other Shiite slums such as Kamaliyah, Fudailiyah, and Sadr City.
The Askariya shrine in Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad, is one of the holiest places for Shiites. Despite heightened security put in place after the February 2006 bombing, suspected al-Qaeda militants managed to infiltrate the compound and bring down its two minarets in June.
The first attack unleashed a bloodbath of reprisals of Shiite death-squad murders of Sunnis, and Sunni bombing attacks on Shiites. At least 34,000 civilians died in last year’s violence, the United Nations reported.
The second bombing, in June, brought down the two minarets, which for many Shiites, were symbols of resilience in the face of a tireless Sunni insurgency, and dealt a bold blow to hopes for reconciliation.
Also Sunday, six gunmen were killed and ten others arrested during clashes with Iraqi soldiers in Mosul, 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, the Iraqi Army said. Brig. Mutaa al-Khazrachi said the fighting erupted at about 11 a.m., when an Iraqi Army patrol was ambushed in the city’s eastern neighborhood of al-Antissar.
Fierce fighting was reported in northwest Baghdad around midday Sunday between Iraqi soldiers and members of the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Gunmen attacked the convoy of Sheik Hazim al-Araji, one of al-Sadr’s aides, after noon prayers in the Kazimiyah neighborhood, police said. Five of al-Araji’s bodyguards were injured, but the sheik escaped unharmed, an officer said on condition of anonymity, out of security concerns.
The U.S. military said its troops killed four suspects and detained seven others in operations across the country Sunday targeting al-Qaeda in Iraq.
On Saturday, U.S. Apache helicopters destroyed three insurgent rockets and damaged five more southeast of the Iraqi capital, another U.S. military statement said. And on Friday, U.S. and Iraqi troops captured two al-Qaeda suspects in the Taji area north of Baghdad, and three others in the al-Qaim area near the Syrian border, the military said.