Top Al-Qaida Leader Killed, U.S. Military Says

( LatWp ) - U.S. forces killed a top al-Qaida in Iraq leader this week whom they believe was responsible for the kidnapping and killing of American soldiers last year, a U.S. general said Friday.

Abu Osama al-Tunisi was killed Tuesday south of Baghdad in an air strike, the latest in a series of operations targeting the leadership of the Sunni militant group, Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson told Pentagon reporters via teleconference from Iraq.

"His death is a key loss," Anderson said of al-Tunisi.

Coincidentally, the death of a man with the same name and job description was announced more than a year ago on ajihadi Web site, an international terrorism consultant said Friday.

Since June, when a U.S. troop buildup reached full strength, American forces have focused their operations on weakening al-Qaida in Iraq, one of several militant groups participating in the Sunni-led insurgency. Anderson said those operations have disrupted the organization, which has been blamed for many of the most sensational bombings in Iraq.

President Bush cited progress in reducing the rate of attacks in announcing his plan to begin withdrawing the nearly 30,000 additional troops brought in this year to help quell insurgent and sectarian bloodshed.

The first 2,200 troops slated to leave under the drawdown completed their deployment Sept. 17 and are headed home, a military spokesman said Friday. The members of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit had been stationed in al- Anbar, where an alliance of Sunni Arab tribal leaders has been credited with helping drive al-Qaida in Iraq militants out of the province.

Insurgents, however, have hit back in recent days, unleashing a string of deadly bombings and assassinations across the country timed to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

As many as 40 Sunni Arab gunmen attacked Shiite Muslims in Jaara on Friday, killing 15 people and injuring four others in a village south of Baghdad that has seen many residents flee at gunpoint, Iraqi police said.

An Air Force F-16 jet dropped two 500-pound bombs on a building where Tunisi was allegedly meeting with other al-Qaida in Iraq militants near Mussayib, about 40 miles south of Baghdad, Anderson said. Two other suspects were killed in the blast, and two were detained, he said.

Tunisi, Anderson said, was originally from Tunisia and was considered the "emir of foreign terrorists" responsible for bringing Sunni Arab fighters into Iraq.

The American general said foreign fighters were responsible for the bulk of suicide bombings here and added that in recent weeks U.S. forces have been able to cut the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq from 60 to 30 a month.

Tunisi was said to have operated in the Yousifiya area southwest of Baghdad and was deemed responsible for the kidnapping and killing of three U.S. soldiers in June 2006. Militants killed Spc. David J. Babineau on June 16 that year at a checkpoint and abducted two other soldiers, Pfc. Kristian Menchaca and Pfc. Thomas Tucker. Their mutilated bodies were found several days later.

Another group of American soldiers were ambushed nearby earlier this year. The body of one victim, Pfc.. Joseph J. Anzack Jr. of Torrance, Calif., was later found floating down the Euphrates River. Tunisi was not linked to that ambush Friday.

A Web site affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq announced the death of a militant named Abu Osama al-Tunisi in the spring of 2006, according to Evan Kohlmann, an international terrorism consultant.

The release posted in May 2006 by Al Hesbah, considered a reliable jihadi source, said that a senior commander named "Abu Osama Al-Tunisi" entered Iraq two years earlier, and that he had been killed in Al-Yusufiyah area in an air strike during which four other al-Qaida in Iraq fighters were also killed, according to the release, a copy of which Kohlmann posted on his Globalterroralert.com W eb site at the time.

Kohlmann said the militant killed last year had a job description nearly identical to the man Anderson said was killed this week.

Kohlmann said it was possible that two senior al-Qaida commanders with the same name have been killed in the past 14 months by U.S.-led forces, given the large number of Tunisians fighting under the banner of al-Qaida in Iraq.

"It is certainly not inconceivable," Kohlmann said. "But the coincidence is unusual."

Anderson, in his comments to reporters, offered a critical assessment of private foreign security companies hired to protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq. The work of those groups has come under increased scrutiny since employees of Blackwater USA working for the State Department were accused of shooting at least 11 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad this month.

Anderson said contractors had a tough job and played a valuable role, but he added that he had seen private contractors "overreact."

Without elaborating, he added: "I can certainly say I've seen them do some tactics that I thought were over the top."

In developments Friday, Iraqi police and hospital officials said a U.S. helicopter strike in southern Baghdad killed at least 10 people and injured 12, including women and children. The U.S. military had no immediate comment on the incident.

The air strike took place at the Saha Apartments, a densely populated Shiite enclave in the Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Dora. The area is believed to be a stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia that regularly exchanges fire with Sunni militants in other parts of Dora.

Residents said a group of volunteers who defend the neighborhood, were sitting outside at about 2 a.m. when they came under fire from the U.S. helicopter. The strike also damaged the building, they said.

The Iraqi army said it killed 30 Sunni insurgents in a raid northeast of Baghdad. Maj. Ziad Hadithi said clashes erupted during the operation in Kanan, a village east of Baqubah, where American officials said a suicide bomber killed at least 24 people and injured 37 earlier this week.

Turkey and Iraq signed an anti-terrorism deal Friday in which they agreed to crack down on Kurdish rebels who use northern Iraq as a base from which to attack Turkey. But the agreement stopped short of allowing Turkish troops to chase militants across their shared border, as had been demanded by Ankara.

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