U.S. and Iraqi officials Tuesday declared a major setback for the anti-government insurgency after the slaying of a man identified as the No. 2 operative of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
But the death of Abu Azzam, who was tracked down and shot in a high-rise apartment building by joint U.S.-Iraqi forces early Sunday, brought no immediate letup of violence in and around his Baghdad base of operation.
In Baqubah, 35 miles to the north, a suicide bomber charged a crowd of police recruits who had assembled for their first day of work and set off explosives strapped to his body, killing 10 recruits and wounding 28. Also Tuesday, the bodies of 22 Shiites who had been shot in the head were found in a deserted area near Kut, a mostly Shiite region 100 miles southeast of the capital.
Al Qaeda in Iraq posted an Internet statement Tuesday saying Abu Azzam’s death “was not confirmed.” Some Iraqis, beleaguered by months of unrelenting car bombs and crumbling public services, voiced skepticism about the government’s latest claim of success.
“Was this terrorist really killed, or is it just propaganda?” asked Suha Azzawi, a Sunni Muslim member of the panel that drafted Iraq’s proposed constitution.
American and Iraqi officials identified Abu Azzam as the insurgent group’s “emir of Baghdad,” the day-to-day organizer of its terrorist attacks throughout the country and conduit of the money to pay its foreign mercenaries.
The group’s estimated 1,000 fighters, led by the elusive Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, are behind a series of beheadings, suicide bombings and other attacks against U.S. forces and members of the Shiite Muslim majority that dominates Iraq’s government.
U.S. officials have proclaimed the killing or capture of top Zarqawi aides several times over the last year, only to admit later that his organization is decentralized enough to absorb the blows. After a man identified as his chief bomb-maker in Baghdad was arrested in January, car bombings here increased sharply.
Some U.S. officials were more optimistic Tuesday, saying Abu Azzam was a more significant figure, harder to replace.
There were conflicting accounts of how U.S. and Iraqi forces found the insurgent, whose real name is Abdullah Najim Abdullah Mohammed Jawari.
Iraqi government spokesman Laith Kubba said a “patriotic citizen” of Iraq had phoned in a tip on the insurgent’s whereabouts. Pentagon officials said the key information came from a detainee in U.S. custody. A statement by the U.S. military command in Baghdad cited “multiple intelligence sources.”
A joint U.S.-Iraqi squad entered an apartment building in southeastern Baghdad and found Abu Azzam’s hide-out, officials said. “They went in to capture him, he did not surrender, and he was killed in the raid,” said Army Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman.
The troops reportedly captured at least one other insurgent in the apartment.
“By taking Abu Azzam off the street ... we have dealt another serious blow to Zarqawi’s terrorist organization,” said Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, chief spokesman for the U.S.-led forces in Iraq.
Iraqi officials said Tuesday that a lower-ranking leader of the group surrendered in the northern city of Mosul and that another was killed in Karabila, near the Syrian border.
Kubba cautioned that insurgents would probably carry out revenge attacks as they struggled to recoup their losses.
“They’re going to have to go to the bench and find somebody that’s probably less knowledgeable, less qualified” than Abu Azzam, said Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “But over time they’ll replace people.”
An Internet statement attributed to the insurgent group’s spokesman, Abu Maysara Iraqi, said Abu Azzam led “one of its battalions” in Baghdad and was being inflated in importance by U.S. and Iraqi officials in “a futile attempt ... to raise the morale of their troops.”
Whatever his rank, U.S. officials said Abu Azzam had brought trouble to Baghdad since his arrival last spring after a stint as “emir,” or leader, of the insurgent group in the western province of Al Anbar.
Since April 1, Baghdad has suffered an upsurge of violence, earning Abu Azzam a spot among Iraq’s 29 most-wanted insurgents and a $50,000 bounty on his head.
Unlike most of the group’s original members, infiltrators from other Arab nations, Abu Azzam was Iraqi -- a symbol of its growing appeal to homegrown militants.
The Iraqi insurgency is made up mainly of members of the minority Sunni Muslim sect that dominated Iraq under former President Saddam Hussein. In the latest apparent attack on Shiites, police found the 22 bodies near Kut. The men had been blindfolded and handcuffed before being shot, authorities said.
In Baqubah, the blast just outside police headquarters ripped apart bodies of police recruits standing near the black-clad bomber, who ran up on foot and made no attempt to conceal his suicide vest, witnesses said.
Car bombers have repeatedly attacked crowds lining up for government jobs or services. Police in Baqubah had tried to prevent such an attack Tuesday by barring vehicles from the streets near the headquarters.
Times staff writers Tyler Marshall and Mark Mazzetti in Washington and Caesar Ahmed in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Baqubah contributed to this report.