Zarqawi's second-in-command shot dead in Baghdad operation

By Luke Baker

BAGHDAD - The second-in-command of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Azzam, was shot dead in Baghdad this week, the US military said on Tuesday, dealing a potentially powerful blow to the group at the heart of Iraq's insurgency.

US and Iraqi forces tracked Azzam, a right-hand man to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most-wanted man in Iraq, to a high-rise Baghdad apartment building where he was shot early on Sunday, US military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Steve Boylan said.

"We had a tip from an Iraqi citizen that led us to him," Boylan said. "We've been tracking him for a while."

The death may mark progress against militants but attacks continued unabated. A suicide bomber blew himself up among a crowd of Iraqi police recruits north of Baghdad on Tuesday, killing at least 10 and wounding around 30, police said.

Azzam is believed to have commanded day-to-day operations in Baghdad and other cities, while also financing attacks and the passage of militants into Iraq from neighboring countries. He was also a religious adviser to Zarqawi, Boylan said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari was expected to give more details at a news conference scheduled for 1100 GMT.

It is not known what nationality Azzam was, or whether he was alone when killed. The US military said he had claimed responsibility in the past for killing a member of Iraq's former Governing Council, and the governor of the city of Mosul.

His death follows the capture or killing of several associates of Zarqawi's in recent months, including a driver and several junior commanders, that have led US forces to believe they may be closing in on Zarqawi himself.

Zarqawi, a Jordanian, is allied to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network. His group has claimed many of the deadliest attacks in Iraq, and recently pledged "all-out war" against Iraq's majority Shi'ite population, an effort to provoke civil war and drive the country further into chaos.

US and Iraqi officials have warned of more violence in the run-up to a referendum on a new constitution on October 15, when voters are expected to say "Yes" to a document drawn up by the Shi'ite- and Kurdish-led government over Sunni Arab objections.

Washington has offered a $25 million bounty for Zarqawi, who is believed to be hiding out in western Iraq.

Boylan said he was not sure how much intelligence was gathered at the site where Azzam was shot, but said either way the operation was a blow to the operations of al Qaeda in Iraq.

"This shows that we are actively going after the network. We've taken down the number two in the network and that is going to have an impact," he said. "And whoever replaces him as number two, we will go after him as well."

Sheikh Abdullah Abu Azzam was also known as the Emir of Anbar, the province west of Baghdad that has been the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency. A $50,000 reward was on offer for information leading to his death or capture.

BAQUBA BOMBER

While the US military was upbeat about Azzam's killing, the capture or death of suspected militant commanders has not always led to a decline in attacks in the past.

In Baquba, 65 kms (40 miles) north of Baghdad, a suicide bomber strapped with explosives mingled among a crowd of hundreds of police recruits in the center of town and blew himself up, killing at least 10 and wounding 26.

Police said the death toll was expected to rise.

The bomber approached the police station on foot, dressed in black and making no attempt to conceal his suicide vest, Specialist Jeff Young of the US military told Reuters.

Young, speaking from the U.S.-Iraqi Joint Coordination Center in Diyala province, said the police station normally recruited trainees twice a month. The recruits usually formed a long queue on a busy road in the town.

Iraqi police and army recruits are a frequent target of guerrillas determined to destroy US and Iraqi government attempts to build up security forces to tackle the insurgency.

There were other attacks around the country. In Baghdad, gunmen fired on a convoy of Iraqi police vehicles taking detainees to Abu Ghraib prison, killing two and wounding 12, among them police and detainees, the Interior Ministry said.

Attacks have been building in the run up to the constitution referendum, which threatens to divide the country along sectarian lines, with Sunni Arabs strongly opposed to many elements in the document, and Shi'ites and Kurds lined up on the other side of the debate.

Tensions are also expected to be running high come October 15 since the referendum falls just four days before Saddam Hussein is due to go on trial for crimes against humanity in connection with the death of around 150 Shi'ite men in a village north of Baghdad following a failed assassination in 1982.

(additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim, Mussab al-Khairalla, Sebastian Alison and Mohammed Ramahi in Baghdad and Faris al-Mehdawi in Baquba)

- REUTERS

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