Iraqis walk past the damaged shrine following an explosion in Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2006. A large explosion Wednesday heavily damaged the golden dome of one of Iraq's most famous Shiite religious shrines, sending protesters pouring into the streets. It was the third major attack against Shiite targets in as many days. (AP Photo/Hameed Rasheed)
A top Iraqi security official on Wednesday said authorities had arrested a key al Qaeda suspect, a Tunisian, wanted in the bombing of the Shiite Golden Dome shrine last February in Samarra.
A spasm of sectarian killing and revenge attacks on Sunni and Shiite mosques after the bombing of the revered shrine in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, took the country to the brink of civil war.
Since then more than 20,000 familIes were displaced from their homes, hundreds of civilians were killed and dozens of mosques belonging to both Muslim sects were damaged or destroyed.
National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie said the ringleader in the operation, an Iraqi he identified as Haitham Sabah Shaker Mohammed al-Badri, still was on the run.
Al-Rubaie identified the arrested man as Yousri Fakher Mohammed Ali, a Tunisian also known as Abu Qudama. He was seriously wounded in a clash with security forces north of Baghdad few days ago in which 15 other foreign fighters were killed, al-Rubaie said.
Abu Qudama and al-Badri were in a gang that included two other Iraqis and four Saudis who carried out the Feb. 22 attack, the security adviser said.In other recent developments:President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered Russia's special services to hunt down the killers of four Russian hostages in Iraq, the Kremlin said. "The president has ordered the special forces to take all necessary measures to find and destroy the criminals who killed Russian diplomats in Iraq," the Kremlin press service said. It did not specify what forces might be involved. The order follows Monday's confirmation by the Foreign Ministry that four Russian Embassy workers seized in Iraq in early June had been killed.
The Iraqi prime minister said Wednesday that several insurgent groups have contacted his office about his national reconciliation plan and he wants direct talks on bringing militants into the political process. However, in a tv statement, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said any amnesty "will exclude fighters who killed Iraqis or soldiers of the multinational forces."
U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad visited Saudi Arabia where he discussed with the kingdom's top officials the situation in the country weeks after a new government was formed, according to news reports on Wednesday. State-run Saudi Press Agency said that Khalilzad met Tuesday with King Abdullah, Crown prince Sultan Bin Abdel Aziz and Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.
A suicide car bomber blew up himself near a Sunni mosque in a market south of the northeastern city of Baqouba on Wednesday, killing one person and wounding 12, police said. A roadside bomb targeting a U.S. convoy also exploded in western Baghdad, killing one Iraqi civilian and wounding another, police Capt. Jamil Hussein said.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, issued a sober assessment of a Baghdad security crackdown on Tuesday, saying violence had decreased slightly but not to "the degree we would like to see" in the two weeks since 75,000 Iraqi and American troops flooded the capital. "It's going to take some time. We do not see an upward trend. We ... see a slight decrease but not of the degree we would like to see at this point," he said at a news conference in the heavily fortified Green Zone.
An American soldier on a foot patrol south of Baghdad was killed Tuesday in a bombing, and a Marine died Tuesday in fighting in Anbar province west of the capital. The military also announced the deaths of two soldiers killed Monday in Anbar fighting.
The White House is playing down reports that the United States is planning sharp troop withdrawals from Iraq, beginning with the pullout of two combat brigades in September. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top military commander in Iraq, has outlined a strategy that could cut the number of combat troops in Iraq by nearly two-thirds by the end of next year. CBS News correspondent David Martin reports there is no agreement yet on the plan, including a proposed initial reduction of 7,000 troops this fall.
The gang planted bombs in the 1,200-year-old Askariya mosque that exploded and obliterated its glistening golden dome, an addition completed in 1905.
While acknowledging al-Badri was still at large, al-Rubaie did not say if other members of the group had been captured.
Al-Rubaie said Abu Qudama, the captured Tunisian, was involved in the killing the of Al-Arabiya TV correspondent Atwar Bahjat, who was shot dead along with two of her colleagues hours after the shrine bombing.
Abu Qudama entered Iraq in November 2003 and was captured "few days ago" in Udaim, a village about 70 miles north of Baghdad, al-Rubaie said.
"Abu Qudama confessed that he killed hundreds of Iraqis" in different parts of the country al-Rubaie said but gave no further details.
"Iraqi forces and its intelligence have achieved major penetrations of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups," the national security adviser said.
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