BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's army and police went on high alert on Monday for possible revenge attacks in one of al Qaeda's major battlegrounds after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in a raid on his Pakistan hideout.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush referred to Iraq as part of the U.S. "war on terror" although no link was found between Saddam Hussein's regime and the September 11 attacks. Al Qaeda militants became a significant force in the violence that ravaged Iraq after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam.
Iraqi and U.S. forces have scored significant victories against al Qaeda's Iraq affiliate, including the killing of its top leaders last year, but the Sunni Islamist insurgency remains lethal and carries out dozens of attacks each month.
"We have issued orders to intensify security measures in the street," said Major-General Hassan al-Baidhani, chief of staff for the Baghdad operations command.
"We 100 percent expect attacks, because organisations like these seek to prove themselves in such circumstances."
The Iraqi government welcomed the news of bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. forces at a luxury villa in Pakistan.
"The Iraqi government is feeling greatly relieved over the killing of Osama bin Laden, who was the planner and director behind the killing of many Iraqis and destroying the country," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
Bush once said Saddam had contact with al Qaeda and could threaten the United States by providing weapons of mass destruction to bin Laden's group. In 2002 U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Washington had presented evidence to its allies proving a link between Baghdad and al Qaeda.
"VIOLENT REACTION" POSSIBLE
The U.S. military, which still has about 47,000 troops in Iraq eight years after the invasion, said it would not comment on any changes in operations as a result of bin Laden's death.
"We recognize that the death of bin Laden may result in a violent reaction from al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist organisations that loosely affiliate with the al Qaeda network," U.S. military spokesman Colonel Barry Johnson said. U.S. military officials say counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda in Iraq have degraded its organization and damaged communications between the local group and al Qaeda's leadership outside the country.
Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the purported head of its local affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, were killed in a raid in April 2010.
That was a major blow against the group blamed for hundreds of battlefield deaths in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
But military commanders still blame al Qaeda for many of the scores of attacks carried out each month against Iraqi citizens, police, soldiers and government officials, including a bloody siege in late March at a provincial council headquarters in Saddam Hussein's hometown, Tikrit, where 58 people were killed.
"The operation against bin Laden is ... a big success for the intelligence services to get justice on this butcher who killed people from different countries, especially Iraq and the United States," said Lieutenant-General Hussein Kamal, a deputy interior minister.
"His death does not mean the end of al Qaeda but it is a ... strike against them and it has a huge moral effect."
War-weary Iraqis appeared to welcome the news.
"In my life, I have never seen a criminal like this person (bin Laden), who took the religion of Islam to serve his own purpose," said Ibrahim Ali Hamdi, 68, a farmer who lost a son to al Qaeda in 2006. "He was powerful in brainwashing many people and turning them into criminals, which later reflected badly on Islam all over the world."