- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

BAGHDAD (AP) — The number of Iraqi civilians killed in Baghdad’s sectarian violence fell drastically overnight, an Iraqi military official said today, crediting the joint U.S.-Iraqi security operation that began in force just days ago.

Iraqi army Brig. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, a spokesman for the Baghdad commander, said only 10 bodies had been reported by the morgue in the capital, compared to an average of 40 to 50 per day.

“This shows a big reduction in terror and killing operations in Baghdad,” he said on Iraqi state television.

Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, also reported a reduction in violence, attributing it to both the increased U.S. and Iraqi security presence and an apparent decision by the militias and insurgents to lay low.

“They’re watching us carefully. There’s an air of suspense throughout the city. We believe, there’s no question about it, that many of these extremists are laying low and watching to see what it is we do and how we do it. How long that will last, we don’t know,” he said.

A U.S. military spokesman, meanwhile, said there were no indications that the al Qaeda in Iraq leader had been killed or wounded in a raid, contradicting reports from the Iraqi government. Further calling the reports into question, an Iraqi army officer said the al Qaeda leader’s deputy — said to be killed in yesterday’s raid north of Baghdad — has been jailed for a week south of the city.

Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said earlier today that terror leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was wounded and an aide killed yesterday in a clash with Iraqi forces near Balad, north of Baghdad.

Gen. Khalaf declined to say how Iraqi forces knew al-Masri had been injured, and deputy Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal later said he could not confirm the information.

However, spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said the U.S. military had no information to corroborate the account.

“We do not believe that he was either killed or wounded last night,” Col. Garver said of al-Masri. He said he also could not confirm any information about the aide.

An Iraqi army officer also said al-Masri’s aide, identified as Abu Abdullah al-Majemaai, had been detained on Feb. 9 and remained in custody in a jail near Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad.

The al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq also denied al-Masri had come to harm. The announcement, on a site frequently used by the terror group, carried the logo of the Islamic State of Iraq, a militant network that includes al Qaeda.

Separately, the U.S. military said a suspected al Qaeda in Iraq cell leader accused in roadside bombings and rocket attacks was detained yesterday in Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles north of Baghdad.

Al-Masri took over the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq after its charismatic leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, was killed in a U.S. air strike last year in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. In October, false reports surfaced that al-Masri was killed in a raid, and the U.S. military performed DNA tests on a slain militant to see if he was the al Qaeda leader.

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