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As Ramadan begins, Al Qaida in Iraq seeks a turnaround

BAGHDAD — Staggered for months by the U.S. troop buildup in Baghdad and a loss of support among many Sunni tribes, Al Qaida in Iraq is apparently pushing to reassert itself as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins.

A Web site believed to be controlled by the terrorist group posted statements Friday and Saturday taking credit for the killing Thursday of a high-profile tribal leader who had sided with the United States and announcing a Ramadan offensive.

It also belatedly took credit for a multiple bombing in northern Iraq in August that left at least 322 dead, the largest fatality count in a single attack since the start of the war in 2003.

One of the statements was signed by Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the purported leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, which the U.S. military claims is a fictitious Al-Qaida front organization. The state led by al Baghdadi was declared in Sunni and mixed-sect areas of Iraq by a group of Sunni insurgent groups dominated by Al Qaida in 2006.

The claim comes as the Iraqi government and parliament further unraveled Friday, with political followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr withdrawing from the powerful United Iraqi Alliance, an alliance of Shiites that ran with the support of the top Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, in the 2005 elections.

No photos or video footage of Abu Omar had ever emerged, and U.S. military leaders said in July that he never existed. A captured Al Qaida leader told U.S. officials that Abu Omar had been fabricated to give their mostly foreign-led group an Iraqi front man so that it would have more legitimacy among the public.

No statements had been issued under his name since July, and Al Qaida communications have been slow in recent weeks. Not only was the claim on the northern Iraq bombings a month after the fact, but Abu Omar also offered $150,000 for the killing of a Swedish cartoonist who published a drawing last month of a dog with the Prophet Mohammad's head.

Even the claim for credit in the assassination Thursday of Abdul Sattar Abu Risha was slow by previous standards.

Abu Risha founded the Anbar Salvation Council, a group of tribal leaders that had turned against Al Qaida in western Iraq.

The Al Qaida in Iraq statement said it was forming "committees" to hunt down and kill other tribal leaders that had joined the United States in fighting insurgents.

A spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, which oversees the national police, said the movement against the extremists wouldn't be stopped.

"Anbar will never stop because of the killing of Abu Risha and it will go on fighting Al Qaida, Al Qaida and those who did this," said Abdul Karim Khalaf.

Details about the killing are still sparse. Khalaf said Abu Risha had stopped his car about 700 meters from his home in Ramadi and stepped out for some reason when a roadside bomb detonated. The blast also killed his nephew, a top aide and two of his guards.

The killers had a backup plan, he said: a suicide car bomber waiting just a short distance away.

According to the Al Qaida statement on the Web site, the killing had taken more than a month to set up.

Khalaf said that someone close to Abu Risha had likely been involved. It's unclear whether the Ramadan offensive by Al Qaida in Iraq is legitimate. In Baghdad, though, the first suicide car bomb in five days exploded Saturday in a central neighborhood near a line of people waiting to buy bread. Ten people were killed, Iraqi police said.

Also Saturday, in another blow to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's embattled government, a spokesman for Sadr announced that anti-American Shiite cleric would withdraw his representatives from the dominant Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance. Earlier this year the Fadhila party, which holds 15 parliament seats, also withdrew from the alliance. Instead, said Sadrist spokesman Salah al Obaidi, Sadr's group was in discussions with another Shiite party that had already pulled its support from Maliki's group. They were considering the formation of a new bloc.

The Sadrists, who have come under attack by Maliki's government in recent months, said they were leaving the alliance because they had several demands that the alliance hadn't met. Sadr has continually demanded a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and considers his militia, the Mahdi Army, legitimate resistance against coalition forces. Earlier this year the Sadrists withdrew their ministers from Maliki's government. Now the withdrawal from the Shiite alliance leaves it weaker, with fewer than 100 seats of the 275 in the parliament.

"We discussed those demands, but they kept promising without doing any of them," he said.

Also Saturday, a spokesman for the Iraqi Health Ministry said that nearly 1,100 people in three northern provinces had tested positive for cholera but that more than 12,000 others showing symptoms had proven not to have it.

Cholera often spreads via contaminated water. It can kill a healthy adult within hours, make victims violently ill or have no effect at all.

The World Health Organization posted a statement on it its website Friday saying there had been nearly 24,000 suspected cases reported in the three provinces. The illness has claimed 10 lives.

(Price reports for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy, Hussein Kadhim and Janeb Hussein contributed to this story.)