More than 70 people have died in suicide bombings in Iraq, on the same day the Iraqi military captured the boss of al-Qaeda in the country.
Security officials say Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was arrested in Baghdad on what was the deadliest day in Iraq in 14 months, with two deadly attacks killing at least 76 people.
Baghdadi is said to be the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, a self-styled umbrella organisation for al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgent groups fighting US and Iraqi forces that has pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden.
“It was Iraqi forces who arrested him based on an intelligence tipoff from someone,” said security spokesman Major General Qassim Atta.
Atta said Baghdadi – who has been reported captured or killed several times in the past – will be shown on television after being questioned, without specifying when.
US defence department spokesman Bryan Whitman said that while the Pentagon had not yet confirmed whether Baghdadi had been captured, his arrest would be significant.
Surge in bloodshed
“We think this is a significant al-Qaeda leader and if the report is true that would be very good news,” he said.
“Baghdadi has been believed to be a key leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq for some time.”
The US military in the past had accused Baghdadi of being a ruse designed to put an Iraqi face on a group that has always been led by foreign fighters.
In July 2007 a US military spokesman said Baghdadi was a fictional character and the voice on audiotapes released in his name was that of an actor.
The US military has always said the real leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq is Abu Hamza al-Muhajir – better known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri – a veteran Egyptian militant named al-Qaeda chief in June 2006 following the death of his better-known Jordanian predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in a US air raid.
The Iraqi military\’s announcement came amid a surge in bloodshed in two attacks on Thursday that killed more than 70 people less than three months before US troops are set to withdraw from all Iraqi cities and major towns.
In the deadliest strike, at least 45 people – including many Iranian pilgrims – were killed when a suicide bomber struck a restaurant in the town of Muqdadiyah northeast of Baghdad, a military official said.
Building packed with pilgrims
The official said another 55 people were wounded in the building, which was packed with Iranian pilgrims on their way to the Shi\’ite holy city of Karbala south of Baghdad.
The bombing took place in the ethnically and religiously mixed Diyala province, which still sees sporadic attacks despite the security improvements elsewhere in Iraq.
Another 28 people, including children, were killed in a suicide attack on police distributing food aid to displaced people sheltering in an abandoned building in southeastern Baghdad.
An interior ministry official said the dead included 10 police and five children. Another 52 people were wounded in the blast in the mixed Al-Riyadh district, defence and interior ministry officials said.
Omar Ali, a Sunni Muslim who was displaced from his neighbourhood by Shi\’ite militants, said the suicide bomber was a woman.
“There were many women and children gathering here. They were happily receiving food from Iraqi security forces when this woman exploded among them,” he said, choking up.
“What did these poor people do to deserve this?”
Street strewn with burning clothes
The front of the building was pockmarked with shrapnel and the street was strewn with burning clothes and flesh.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned on Sunday at a meeting of senior security officials that the danger from “terrorist cells” was far from over.
His remarks followed an upsurge in violence over recent weeks after several months which saw a steady reduction in the number of attacks.
“We have succeeded in re-establishing security, but maintaining it is more difficult,” Maliki said.
Iraq\’s 560,000 police and 260,000 soldiers are to assume greater responsibility for security as US forces withdraw from all cities by June 30 and from the country as a whole by the end of 2011.
Violence has plummeted over the past two years as American and Iraqi forces have allied with local tribes and former insurgents to bring calm to vast swathes of the country.
However more than 150 people have been killed since the start of April, according to an AFP count based on reports from security officials.