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Senior Al Qaeda leader killed by US air strike in Iraq

Group kidnapped soldiers last year, Army general says

Mourners with three coffins yesterday in Dora, Iraq, after a US air strike targeted members of Al Qaeda. A Tunisian linked to the killings last year of American soldiers was one of the dead. Mourners with three coffins yesterday in Dora, Iraq, after a US air strike targeted members of Al Qaeda. A Tunisian linked to the killings last year of American soldiers was one of the dead. (Loay Hameed/associated press)

WASHINGTON - A top US commander in Iraq said yesterday that a US air strike killed a senior Al Qaeda leader, a Tunisian linked to the kidnapping and killings last year of American soldiers in Iraq.

Brigadier General Joseph Anderson said the suspected terrorist, Abu Osama al-Tunisi, was killed Tuesday south of Baghdad. He said the US operation targeting the leader and similar operations against Al Qaeda have left the organization in Iraq fractured.

Tunisi was killed along with two other terrorist suspects in a US F-16 strike that dropped two 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a safehouse where they were meeting, said the US Central Command Air Forces.

"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.

Tunisi was a leader in helping bring foreign terrorists into the country, Anderson said. He said Tunisi operated in Youssifiyah, southwest of Baghdad, in November 2004 and became the overall emir of Youssifiyah in the summer of 2006.

Tunisi's group was responsible for kidnapping American soldiers 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 US soldiers were killed that month in an ambush-kidnapping that happened while they were guarding a bridge.

Specialist David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass., was killed at a river checkpoint south of Baghdad on June 16, 2006, and Privates First Class Kristian Menchaca and 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 coalition 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 US teams.

Commanders have said that the increase in troops ordered by President Bush in January - and the increased 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.

"They are very broken up, very unable to mass, and conducting very isolated operations," Anderson said. He could not estimate the number of foreign fighters in Iraq but said they commit over 80 percent of suicide bombings in the country.

Anderson said he believes Al Qaeda leadership is taking stock of its ability to disrupt US and Iraqi government activities in Iraq. He said he thought they would shift their attention back to Afghanistan, where they had safe haven before the US invasion that followed the 9/11 attacks.

In a separate development yesterday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said a US Senate proposal to split Iraq into regions according to religious or ethnic divisions would be a catastrophe.

The Kurds in three northern Iraqi provinces are running a virtually independent country within Iraq, while nominally maintaining relations with Baghdad. They support a formal division. But both Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims have reacted with extreme opposition to the US Senate proposal.

The majority Shi'ites, who would retain control of major oil revenues under a division of the country, oppose the measure because it would diminish the territorial integrity of Iraq, which they now control. Sunnis would control an area with few if any oil resources. Kurds have major oil reserves in their territory.

The nonbinding Senate resolution calls for Iraq to be divided into federal regions under control of the three communities in a power-sharing agreement similar to the one that ended the 1990s war in Bosnia. Democrat presidential hopeful Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. was a prime sponsor of the measure.

"It is an Iraqi affair dealing with Iraqis," Maliki said on a return flight to Baghdad from New York where he appeared at the UN General Assembly. "Iraqis are eager for Iraq's unity. . . . Dividing Iraq is a problem, and a decision like that would be a catastrophe."

Maliki's comments were the first since the measure passed Wednesday.

Iraq's constitution created a federal system, allowing Shi'ites in the south, Kurds in the north, and Sunnis in the center and west of the country to set up regions with considerable autonomous powers.

Nevertheless, ethnic and sectarian turmoil have snarled hopes of negotiating such measures, especially given deep divisions on sharing the country's vast oil resources.

Oil reserves and existing fields would fall mainly into the hands of Kurds and Shi'ites if such a division were to occur.

Biden maintains that the United States has focused too much on trying to prop up a strong, central unified government. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said the administration supports a federal Iraq, but it is a "sensitive issue best left to the Iraqis to address at their own pace."

Iraqi police and witnesses said US troops backed by helicopter gunships raided an apartment building at 2 a.m. yesterday in a primarily Sunni neighborhood in southern Baghdad, killing 10 civilians and wounding 12. The US military said it was checking into the report.

In violence north of Baghdad, at least six people were killed when four gunmen wearing military uniforms barged into a busy cafe late Thursday as people were playing a popular game to celebrate the end of the dawn-to-dusk fast during Ramadan.

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