BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Forty senior al Qaeda in Iraq members were either captured or killed in November, including a senior adviser to the Sunni Islamist group’s leader, the U.S. military said on Tuesday.
Violence levels in Iraq have fallen to their lowest levels since January 2006 after a security crackdown, which included a deployment of an extra 30,000 U.S. troops, targeting al Qaeda and Shi’ite militias across the country.
But while attacks have fallen by 55 percent since the additional troops were fully deployed in mid-June, allowing thousands of Iraqis who had fled abroad to return home, U.S. commanders say violence could easily flare again.
“There is no question that al Qaeda in Iraq remains a dangerous and vicious threat to the Iraqi people and to the security forces and the coalition forces,” U.S. military spokesman Major-General Kevin Bergner told a news conference.
“Al Qaeda continues to try to seek spectacular attacks which were so damaging and which continue to be so damaging in inciting sectarian tensions … we still have a tough fight ahead of us even amidst the progress,” he said.
Bergner said one al Qaeda member killed last month had been identified as Abu Maysara, a Syrian he said was a senior adviser to al Qaeda in Iraq leader, Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri.
He said Maysara was killed along with five other al Qaeda fighters in a raid on a building near Samarra, 100 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad on November 17.
The six were killed when U.S. ground forces called in air strikes after coming under fire from the building. Bergner said Maysara had been identified by DNA tests.
“Abu Maysara was responsible for providing extremist guidance and justifications on terrorist matters to Abu al-Masri,” Bergner said.
Maysara was captured in November 2004 but escaped from Iraq’s Badush prison in March 2007.
He was an adviser to al Masri’s predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Falluja, west of Baghdad, where al Qaeda fought battles against U.S. forces in 2003 and 2004, Bergner said.
“He also ran an illegal court in Falluja that was responsible for the brutal murders of countless innocent Iraqis,” he added.
Maysara usually signed off on al Qaeda in Iraq Web statements for Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. and Iraqi military raid in June 2006.
Bergner said Maysara was one of nine senior al Qaeda figures killed last month, with another 31 captured. Of those 40, four were described as senior level emirs and nine as cell leaders.
The fight against al Qaeda has shifted from its former stronghold in western Anbar province to areas north and south of Baghdad after the troop increase and growing use of local police units organized by mainly Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs.
Bergner said the recently completed Operation Iron Hammer north of Baghdad had “captured or killed hundreds of terrorists”. It has been replaced by a new offensive named Operation Iron Reaper, which involves four U.S. combat brigades and three Iraqi army divisions.
Earlier on Tuesday, Iraq’s cabinet agreed to seek a final one-year extension on the U.N. Security Council mandate allowing U.S.-led foreign troops to conduct a wide range of military operations in Iraq.
The current one-year mandate expires at the end of 2007. When the U.N. mandate ends in 2008, bilateral agreements will govern U.S.-Iraqi relations. The White House has said formal talks will begin early next year on the future relationship.