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Iraqi forces catch al-Qaida suspect

THE suspected leader of an al-Qaida-linked militant network was captured by Iraqi military forces yesterday, security officials said.

The capture could mark a significant blow against Sunni insurgents as they step up attacks. Two separate suicide bombings killed at least 54 people yesterday.

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi has been a key target for United States and Iraqi forces for years as the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group of Sunni militant factions believed dominated by al-Qaida.

But little is known about his origins or real influence over insurgent groups, which have staged a series of high-profile attacks in recent weeks, including, apparently, the two suicide blasts yesterday in Baghdad and north of the capital.

The US military has even said al-Baghdadi could be a fictitious character used to give an Iraqi face to an organization dominated by foreign al-Qaida fighters. But Iraqi state television quoted military spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi as saying al-Baghdadi was arrested in Baghdad.

In the past Iraqi officials have announced arrests of key militant figures that later proved wrong.

Audio message

In March a 17-minute audio message attributed to al-Baghdadi and carried on militant Websites called Washington's announcement of a combat withdrawal timetable from Iraq a "recognition of defeat."

Although violence is down sharply around Iraq compared with recent years, high-profile attacks blamed on insurgents have been on the rise recently.

In Baghdad, a suicide bomber blew himself up among a group of Iraqis collecting humanitarian aid in a mainly Shiite area in Baghdad, killing at least 22 people, the Iraqi military said.

The attack was the latest in a series of high-profile bombings that have raised concern of an increase in violence as the US military scales back its forces before a planned withdrawal by the end of 2011.

Abbas Ibrahim, a 24-year-old college student, described pools of blood on the ground and the smell of burned flesh in the air.

"We regret that violence has come back to Baghdad," he said.

Some police were among the 22 people killed and 35 other people were wounded, according to the military.

North of Baghdad, a suicide bomber killed at least 32 people in a crowded restaurants, said Sadir Jaafar, the deputy head of the Diyala provincial council.

The US military gave a lower toll, saying at least 20 were killed. Conflicting casualty tolls are common.



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