BAGHDAD — U.S. military officials said Sunday that coalition forces had killed the al Qaida mastermind of an attack in February 2006 that obliterated the golden dome of a sacred Shiite mosque in Samarra and fueled sectarian killings that left thousands dead.
Haitham al Badri, also accused of plotting the destruction of the same mosque's two towering minarets in June, was killed Thursday after he and three other insurgents emerged from buildings that military forces had been monitoring, U.S. officials said.
The four men were about to stage an ambush on troops when coalition units attacked them, said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a spokesman for the U.S.-led forces. Only later did the military realize it had killed a high-profile target.
After bombers blew up the famed golden dome of the Askariya Mosque in Samarra, about 65 miles north of Baghdad, Shiites took to the streets, and thousands of Sunnis and Shiites died in the ensuring violence.
Iraq's national security adviser Mowaffak al Rubaie said recently that during the February 2006 attack, al Badri and five others rounded up the mosque guards, bound them and spent hours planting explosives in the mosque's gold dome, which was shattered by the bombing.
Also Sunday, men wearing Iraqi military uniforms tried to gun down one of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's top aides, raising questions about whether the powerful Mahdi Army controlled by Sadr may be turning on its own, using tactics typically linked to the Mahdi Army itself.
Sadr officials said that Sadr's top aide, Hazem al Araji, was in a convoy in the northwest Baghdad neighborhood of Kadhimiyah when armed men wearing Iraqi National Guard uniforms opened fire on him, injuring five of his bodyguards.
Sadr, an influential cleric, leads the Mahdi Army, which has infiltrated Iraqi security forces and is often accused of posing in Iraqi military uniforms to carry out its attacks. It is unclear whether the would-be assassins were actual Iraqi soldiers or possibly other backers of Sadr, whose movement has become splintered in recent months.
A spokesperson for the Iraqi military could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Recently, al Araji was reported to have lost clout in the Sadr movement and some of his control over the Mahdi Army in Kadhimiyah.
Qahtan al Sudani, a spokesman for Araji who leads the Sadr office in Kadhimiyah, blamed the attack on Sunnis.
"We accuse the Baathist takfiris," al Sudani said referring to both Saddam Hussein's secular party and Sunni extremists.
Araji was a devotee of Sadr's late father, a prominent Iraqi ayatollah. Araji fled Iraq in 1999 after Sadr's father was killed and returned from exile in Canada in 2003. U.S. forces twice detained Araji after the Mahdi Army fought two bitter uprisings against the Americans in 2004, but released on both occasions.
In the Iraqi capital Sunday, mortars hit an east Baghdad neighborhood in the morning, killing 11 people and injuring 10 others. Moments later, more mortar shells fell in a nearby neighborhood, injuring six people.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Iraqi factions remained unreconciled. "At some point there has to be reconciliation at the national level," he said on NBC's Meet the Press. He repeated an admission he made last week that the U.S. government had "underestimated the depth of the misunderstanding and mistrust" among the factions in Baghdad.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for a timeline for the removal of U.S. troops in Iraq in order to pressure Iraqi politicians to reconcile their differences. The chances of the Baghdad government meeting political benchmarks such as disarming militias and passing an oil revenue sharing law were "just about nil," Levin said on CNN's Late Edition.
(Special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Hussein Kadhim contributed from Baghdad. Kevin Hall reported from Washington.)