- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009

BAGHDAD | Suicide bombers struck a humanitarian aid distribution point and a crowded restaurant in separate attacks Thursday in Iraq, killing at least 78 people in the deadliest day of violence to strike the country this year.

The bombings are the latest in a series of high-profile attacks that have raised concern about an uptick in violence as the U.S. military scales back its forces in Iraq ahead of a planned withdrawal by the end of 2011.

The latest attacks also come as Iraqi security officials said they have captured one of the most wanted leaders of the al Qaeda-linked Sunni insurgency. The arrest could deliver a significant blow to an intensified campaign of attacks.

The officials identified the arrested man as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi who is thought to lead the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group of Sunni militant factions that is believed dominated by al Qaeda in Iraq. In the past, however, Iraqi officials have incorrectly reported al-Baghdadi’s arrest or killing. The U.S. military has even said al-Baghdadi could be a fictitious character used to give an Iraqi face to an organization dominated by foreign al Qaeda fighters.

Al-Baghdadi has been a key target for U.S. and Iraqi forces for years. But little is known about his origins or real influence over insurgent groups. Those groups have staged high-profile attacks in recent weeks, apparently including the two suicide blasts Thursday in Baghdad and northeast of the capital in Diyala province.

In Baghdad, a bomber blew himself up among a group of Iraqis collecting humanitarian aid in a mainly Shi’ite area, killing at least 31 people, the Iraqi military said.

The attacker struck as police were distributing Iraqi Red Crescent food parcels in the central neighborhood of Karradah, the main Baghdad military spokesman said.

It was not immediately clear who carried out the attack, but one witness said it appeared to be a woman. Women have been used in suicide bombings in Iraq, most recently during a Feb. 13 attack on Shi’ite pilgrims in Musayyib.

Muhanad Harbi, a shop owner near the blast site, said he saw a woman wearing a black robe walk into the crowd. He said it appeared she detonated an explosives belt.

U.S. military spokesman Derrick Cheng said 47 people were killed and about 70 were wounded when the suicide bomber detonated an explosives vest in a separate incident near Muqdadiyah, an insurgent hotbed about 60 miles northeast of Baghdad.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the U.S. military was working to verify who was captured.

“I can’t confirm … the capture of a senior al Qaeda member or that it was Baghdadi,” he said, but noted he had no reason to doubt the credibility of the report.

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