Militant turncoat lead Iraqis to al-Qaida chiefs

Qassim Abdul-Zahra / The Associated Press /

BAGHDAD — Leery of using a mobile phone, the militant tasked with directing some of Baghdad’s deadliest recent bombings would get his orders from al-Qaida in Iraq’s leadership by meeting a go-between near a grocery store named Mr. Milk.

So after Iraqi security forces nabbed the militant, Munaf Abdul-Rahim al-Rawi, it was to Mr. Milk’s store that he led investigators. That was the first step culminating in what Iraqi and American officials called a devastating blow to the terror group: the killing of al-Qaida in Iraq’s secretive two top leaders in a raid last week.

In an interview this week with The Associated Press, al-Rawi offered a rare insight into the shadowy terror group that continues to plague Iraq after years of deadly attacks aiming to push the country into civil war.

Al-Rawi’s arrest itself was something of a coup for Iraqi security forces. Known by his underlings as “the dictator,” al-Rawi commanded al-Qaida operations in Baghdad, and an Iraqi security spokesman confirmed that al-Rawi played a role in a number of attacks, including the August 2009 bombings of several government ministries that killed more than 100 people.

On March 11, al-Rawi was passing through a Baghdad checkpoint, where a guard recognized him from his photo on a most-wanted list and arrested him, al-Rawi said.

But the capture was kept secret from the public, as he gave investigators information that eventually led to the April 18 strike that killed Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

A death sentence?

Now al-Rawi will likely face trial for his own role. In the 45-minute interview, he shrugged off worries over his fate. “My hope is to enter paradise,” al-Rawi said. “One of the investigators said a death sentence is waiting for me. I told him, ‘It is normal.’”

Security spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi described al-Rawi as the militant who led investigators to al-Baghdadi and al-Masri. Speaking to reporters last week, U.S. Brig. Gen. Ralph Baker also said al-Rawi was a vital source who along with others “have all been instrumental in leading to the success of the capture and the killing of the senior leadership in al-Qaida.”

Al-Masri, a weapons expert who was trained in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, was the national leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Baghdadi was the self-described leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, an offshoot of al-Qaida, and was so elusive that at times U.S. officials questioned whether he was a real person.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki heralded their deaths in a news conference where he brandished pictures of the two militants’ bloody bodies. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called the killings a “potentially devastating blow” to al-Qaida in Iraq.

An AP reporter was allowed by Iraqi security officials to interview al-Rawi. The reporter was taken in a car with blacked-out windows to an undisclosed location in the Baghdad area that appeared to be a military facility. Wearing a blue track suit, the 35-year-old al-Rawi spoke in a spartan office, and an Iraqi security official was present for parts of the interview.

Arrest and raid

Al-Rawi warned that after the two leaders’ deaths, al-Qaida in Iraq “will implement revenge operations to prove it’s still strong.”

Al-Rawi described how he would meet a go-between he identified only as “Jaafar,” who would relay messages between him and al-Masri. He said he had little contact with al-Baghdadi.

Worried about government monitoring of mobile phones and the Internet, al-Rawi and Jaafar would meet in western Baghdad’s primarily Sunni Mansour neighborhood, on the street outside the Mr. Milk grocery store. Iraqi security officials said the meeting place was picked at random, and no one in the neighborhood was implicated in the terror group.

After his arrest, al-Rawi said he detailed the meetings to investigators, who promptly put him at the center of a sting operation to catch Jaafar.

“They allowed me to meet him but they surrounded all the area nearby,” al-Rawi said. “Then they arrested him.”

Two Iraqi security officials with knowledge of the investigation said Jaafar pointed Iraqi and U.S. forces to the Tikrit-area safehouse where al-Masri and al-Baghdadi were meeting, triggering the raid.