A high-level Al Qaeda in Iraq operative believed to be one of the planners behind the bombing of a revered Shiite Muslim shrine has been captured, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Sunday.
Hamed Jumaa Farid Saeedi, a former intelligence agent under Saddam Hussein’s regime who is believed to be in his early 40s, was the No. 2 Al Qaeda in Iraq operative, said Iraqi national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie.
An Iraqi intelligence unit working with U.S. special forces captured Saeedi near Baqubah, northeast of the capital, not far from where Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi was killed three months ago, authorities said. They did not reveal when Saeedi was arrested but said the capture also led to the arrest of 20 Al Qaeda in Iraq members, including 11 considered to be high- to mid-level operatives.
Saeedi allegedly directed the February bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, a pilgrimage site that holds the remains of two of Shiite Islam’s holiest martyrs. The attack sparked weeks of sectarian violence that left hundreds dead.
Although they expressed satisfaction at having captured such a highly sought insurgent figure, U.S. and Iraqi officials acknowledged that Al Qaeda in Iraq was far from defeated.
“We’ve been very effective in dismantling the leadership and targeting it and disrupting its activities,” Army Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said. “But we also recognize that this is a decentralized organization working from cells that are able to operate independently.”
Rubaie said the arrest showed that the group was “severely wounded.”
“Their command and communications structure has been disrupted and there is a vacuum in their leadership,” he said. “We hope there will be a domino effect.”
Rubaie said Saeedi was in charge of Haytham Sabah Shakir Mahmood Badri, identified by authorities as the mastermind of the seven-member cell that sneaked into the mosque Feb. 22, tied up the guards and packed the shrine with enough explosives to shatter the ancient structure. Despite calls for calm by Iraq’s religious and political leadership, Sunni Arabs and Shiite militias carried out sectarian killings that left hundreds dead and drove the nation to the brink of civil war.
Saeedi’s arrest came almost three months after a U.S. F-16 dropped two 500-pound guided bombs on the hide-out of Jordanian-born terrorist Zarqawi, killing him and uncovering what American military investigators called a “treasure trove” of documents, computer hard drives and other intelligence.
U.S. and Iraqi officials credited Iraqis with Saeedi’s capture, and were circumspect about the role the American troops played; information about U.S. special operations in Iraq is a closely guarded secret.
Officials also declined to offer details about the investigation leading up to Saeedi’s capture, including the date of his arrest or the identities of the other Al Qaeda in Iraq operatives recently captured. Rubaie said authorities had been seeking the alleged insurgent leader for months.
In addition to his alleged involvement in the Samarra bombing, Saeedi also was believed to be responsible for organizing suicide bombings, assassinations, attacks against Iraqi security force checkpoints and kidnappings for ransom.
“During his interrogation, the interrogator was telling him, ‘You killed hundreds of Iraqis!’ ” Rubaie said. “Saeedi said, ‘Hundreds? I killed thousands!’ He was actually boasting about it.”
U.S. officials acknowledged that Saeedi’s alleged position in Al Qaeda in Iraq highlighted the organization’s transformation from an insurgent group led by foreign extremists to a largely homegrown force.
“We recognize that Al Qaeda draws and tries to recruit Iraqis as well as bringing in people from outside the country,” Johnson said. “The majority of the organization is Iraqi, although much of the leadership has been from other nations.”
Some U.S. intelligence sources believe that Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, the founders of Al Qaeda’s international network, chose a shadowy Egyptian named Abu Ayyub Masri as the successor to Zarqawi.
Intelligence officials say Masri was chosen over Saeedi in order to strengthen the international organization’s control over the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda.
“We believe the central leadership of Al Qaeda does not trust Iraqis to be on top,” said Rubaie, who said there were clear tensions within Al Qaeda.
But in recent interviews with the Los Angeles Times, senior U.S. military officers in Iraq said that despite signs of tensions among Al Qaeda in Iraq’s leaders, the organization was adapting to ensure its survival. American military sources said the group had used the incentive of large dowries to encourage marriage into Iraqi tribes that have clashed with the foreign insurgents.
“What they’ve been doing is coming in and marrying into the tribe with the specific intent of trying to endear the tribes to them and get the support of the tribes,” said a military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss intelligence matters.
“We see a lot of that happening in the Al Anbar province. That’s a clear strategy they’re trying to employ.”
Some intelligence sources in Iraq said the local Al Qaeda branch reorganized shortly before Zarqawi’s death in order to decentralize its leadership and involve more Iraqi nationals.
U.S. and Iraqi officials also acknowledged that Al Qaeda in Iraq was just one among many shifting and sometimes overlapping networks of Sunni Arab militant organizations.
“The attacks in Iraq are not exclusively by Al Qaeda,” Rubaie said.
“Al Qaeda is only one of the organizations that is contributing to the violence. There are the die-hard Saddamists and the other arms of the insurgency -- they constitute more than 80% of the violence in Iraq.”
That point was brought home by continued sectarian violence that killed at least 22 people Sunday, including two families. One family of eight was gunned down in the western province of Al Anbar, and a family of five in Baqubah died when its booby-trapped car exploded.
The U.S. military also announced that insurgents killed two Marines in Al Anbar -- one died Friday and the other Sunday.
In separate incidents, gunmen in Baqubah killed two Iraqi policemen on their way back from home leave and shot a municipal worker to death.
In Zaghanya, east of Baqubah, insurgents bombed a Shiite mosque. No casualties were reported in the attack.
A bomb killed three people and injured 19 others in Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad.
A separate bombing that targeted a U.S. military patrol on the outskirts of Baqubah killed one child and injured another.
In the south, gunmen killed the caretaker of a Shiite mosque in downtown Amarah, a town that has been beset with intra-Shiite fighting.