Zarqawi deputy killed in gun battle

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The Independent Online

The US military and the Iraqi government claimed a major victory as they announced his death yesterday. "We got specific information and intelligence which led us to him," said Captain Steve Boylan of the US Army. In a statement posted on the internet, al-Qa'ida in Iraq denied that Abu Azzam was its second in command and said "it was not confirmed" that he was dead. It called the US and Iraqi claims that he was the group's top deputy "a futile attempt ... to raise the morale of their troops".

The US said Abu Azzam, believed to be a Palestinian, had been "emir of Baghdad" in the al-Qa'ida organisation, overseeing operations in the capital. These consist primarily consist of suicide bombings triggered among Shia labourers or men lining up for jobs at army or police recruiting centres.

The city morgue in Baghdad is receiving the bodies of about 25 victims of violence every day, a figure that spiked recently to 57.

Al-Qa'ida in Iraq is only informally linked to al- Qa'ida under Osama bin Laden. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the Iraqi faction, pledged allegiance in October last year, having previously been his rival. Al-Qa'ida in Iraq is large enough to send out a dozen suicide bombers a day and claims an extensive organisation capable of concealing and equipping them. Most of the bombers are foreigners, mostly from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

The impact of the killing of Abu Azzam on the group is unclear. But an organisation built around a cult of death is unlikely to be demoralised or even disorganised by the death of one leader.

Just as the US and Iraqi governments were announcing their success a man blew himself up among recruits to the police at Baquba, 40 miles north of Baghdad. Ten of the young men waiting to get a job were killed.

While many Sunni Arabs in towns such as Ramadi do not approve of the massacre of Shias, they are frightened of being killed themselves and do not want to collaborate with the US Army or government troops.