BAGHDAD U.S. forces in Iraq said on Sunday they had killed the mastermind of an attack on a gold-domed Shi'ite shrine last year that triggered the worst phase of the country's spiral into sectarian violence.
The U.S. military described Haitham al-Badri as the top al Qaeda leader in Salahuddin province and blamed him for the pivotal 2006 attack on Samarra's al-Askari mosque.
That attack, which brought down the shrine's famed golden dome, inspired widespread revenge killings and is seen as the trigger for the war's deadliest phase, when an insurgency mainly of Sunni Arabs against U.S. forces turned into a sectarian conflict pitting Iraq's main communities against each other.
U.S. and Iraqi leaders also blame Badri for a second attack on the same shrine seven weeks ago which toppled its minarets.
Military spokesman Rear Admiral Mark Fox said Badri and several other gunmen were strafed by a U.S. helicopter after they were seen preparing an ambush east of Samarra.
U.S. and Iraqi officials frequently say they have killed or captured leading al Qaeda figures, and the precise role any particular individual may have played in the shadowy militant group is often difficult to assess.
Violence continued on Sunday. A barrage of mortars at dawn killed at least 11 people as residents lined up for fuel at a Baghdad petrol station. Police said they had found 18 corpses dumped throughout Baghdad in the past 24 hours.
Police in Baquba, north of Baghdad, said they had found 60 decomposed corpses dumped in thick grass on Sunday. Little else was known about the bodies.
Baquba is the capital of volatile Diyala province and an al Qaeda stronghold. Diyala has seen a spike in violence since a security crackdown in Baghdad forced insurgents and Sunni Islamist al Qaeda fighters into surrounding areas.
The U.S. military said four soldiers had been killed in combat in an around Baghdad in the past two days. About 3,670 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the March 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
Washington says its military strategy of sending 30,000 additional troops to Iraq this year and spreading them in neighbourhoods is having success, but has complained about the failure of Iraqi politicians to make progress at the same time.
The security crackdown is meant to give Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's coalition government time to reach political benchmarks which Washington says would promote reconciliation between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Arabs.
But Washington was angered by parliament's decision last week to break for the month of August with no real progress made on the benchmarks, which include a revenue-sharing oil law.
"I said 'for every day that we buy you, we're buying it with American blood. The idea of you going on vacation is unacceptable," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on NBC's "Meet the Press".
Top Iraqi political leaders are due to meet in the next few days to try to salvage a governing coalition that was supposed to help end the violence by including members of all of Iraq's major groups, but which has failed to meet Washington's targets.
Maliki announced that he was refusing to accept the resignations of six Sunni ministers, whose walkout last week sparked the latest political crisis.
The largest Sunni Arab group, the Accordance Front, has said it would pull Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zobaie and five other ministers out of the cabinet.
Senior parliamentarian Saleem al-Jubouri told Reuters the bloc was standing by its position. Front leader Adnan al-Dulaimi painted a bleak picture by saying that Maliki's was "an unsuccessful sectarian government that intended to frustrate the political process".
(Additional reporting by Ross Colvin and Paul Tait)