Iraq: Al-Qaida Leaders Killed, Election Recount

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Iraq's prime minister announced Monday that the two top leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq had been killed. At the same time, there was a setback for that country's hopes of seating an elected government anytime soon. A judge ordered the manual recount of 2 million votes that were cast in Baghdad.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Iraq has dealt a blow to its continuing low-level insurgency. Yesterday, Iraq's prime minister announced that the two top leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq had been killed. At the same time, there was a setback for that country's hopes of seating an elected government before the end of summer. A judge ordered a manual recount of the two million votes that were cast in Baghdad.

For more, we've got NPR's Baghdad bureau chief Quil Lawrence on the line. Good morning.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's begin with the deaths of those al-Qaida operatives.

LAWRENCE: These were two men that both Iraqi and American military officials had been talking about for a long time. One is Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who's an Egyptian. They say that he took over al-Qaida in Iraq after 2006 when a U.S. airstrike killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The other figure is Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. And he's a very interesting one because in the past, the U.S. officials, off the record, had even suggested that he might be a fictional character that had been created to put a name to all of these bombings. And the Iraqi government had claimed several times in the past to have captured or killed him, so there was some skepticism.

But now, U.S. officials and Iraqi officials are insisting that they have perfect evidence that this was, in fact, the leader of this Islamic State of Iraq group.

MONTAGNE: Now, when this news came out, Vice President Joe Biden called this potentially devastating to al-Qaida there in Iraq. What does it look like from that end?

LAWRENCE: Well, certainly, people are hoping that it will mean an end to these mass casualty car bombs, suicide attacks that have still been able to infiltrate Baghdad security over the last eight months. But we really have to wait and see.

I'd have to say Iraqis are quite cynical about this. When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed back in 2006, we heard similar things about how this was going to be a huge blow to al-Qaida, and it really continued with no visible effect on the insurgency.

MONTAGNE: Let's get to the vote recount. What is expected there? I mean, what are the consequences of having to recount by hand two-plus million votes?

LAWRENCE: Well, the first consequence, inevitably, is a delay. And that's really causing some dismay around the United Nations and diplomatic circles here, people who had been hoping that Iraq would be able to start really getting down to business and forming a government.

As you know, in the March 7th election, no single bloc won enough seats to form a government on its own. And the process of haggling over seats and ministries and policies to form a coalition government was already expected to last well into the summer. Now, with this surprise ruling by a court that they do need to recount the votes in Baghdad - something that Prime Minister Maliki had been insisting on - the election authority say they're not even sure how they're going to do it. They have to come up with a mechanism. It could take weeks for that to be done, and probably the delay will last well into the summer, if not into the fall.

And the real question is whether people will accept the results if they change. Voters have indicated that they're already suspicious of the results, and this might just increase distrust.

MONTAGNE: And, Quil, just a last question - I'd like to ask you about a story that ran in the L.A. Times this week. It documented a secret prison system run by the Shiite-led government, in which Sunnis have been tortured. Is this story an indication or a sign of a return to Iraq's sectarian dirty war?

LAWRENCE: It certainly stokes those sort of fears. The story written by Ned Parker in the L.A. Times is about hundreds of men, Sunnis, arrested around the city of Mosul, some of them without warrants. They were held for months, and apparently they were subjected to torture routinely in a secret prison in Baghdad.

Now, Iraqi government officials claim that they have to bring prisoners to Baghdad sometimes, because otherwise they'll just be released by judges, courts that are sympathetic, perhaps, to the insurgents in places like Mosul. But the tales of torture and rape as torture in the prison are really horrific.

The prime minister told the L.A. Times that when he discovered that this was going on, he shut it down. But certainly, Sunni families of these men are not accepting that the prime minister himself wasn't involved. And it really raises questions about whether the sectarian violence is over or just dormant here in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: Quil, thanks very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Quil Lawrence, speaking to us from Baghdad.

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