BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi forces have captured four senior al Qaeda militants in an early morning ambush north of the capital, including one of the group’s top military commanders, defence authorities said on Wednesday.
Local Sunni Islamist al Qaeda affiliates are still blamed for much of the violence in Iraq with the insurgency seeking to destabilise the country as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw by the end of the year.
“It was an ambush during which they were captured after we acted on detailed information. We were following them,” said Mohammed al-Askari, the defence ministry spokesman.
The four men included Mikhlif Mohammed Hussein al-Azzawi, known as Abu Radhwan, suspected of leading the local group’s military operations, and Qassim Mohammed Taher, accused of orchestrating a March attack on a provincial building that killed more than 50 people.
They were arrested in the city of Samarra, 100 km (62 miles) north of Baghdad, Askari said.
Violence in Iraq has ebbed since the sectarian slaughter between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims following the U.S. invasion in 2003 that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi officials say al Qaeda has been severely weakened, and its two top commanders were killed in April last year. But dozens of bombings, assassinations and attacks are still carried out each month.
Iraqi security officials have been on high alert for revenge attacks by local al Qaeda fighters since U.S. troops killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan earlier this month.
Iraqi Shi’ite militias are also blamed for a wave of attacks on police and army officers in an attempt to block what some Shi’ite leaders fear could be a return of Saddam’s outlawed Sunni Baath Party after the U.S. withdrawal.
(Reporting by Aseel Kami; writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Maria Golovnina)