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U.S. says kills senior al Qaeda leader in Iraq

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. forces said on Wednesday they had killed the second-in-command of al Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni Islamist militant group allied to Osama bin Laden that Washington blames for much of the country’s violence.

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The military said it had identified the militant, a Moroccan named Abu Qaswarah, this week after he was killed in a raid in the northern city of Mosul on October 5. It described him as al Qaeda’s leader in northern Iraq and number two in the country.

“Abu Qaswarah’s death will cause a major disruption to the al Qaeda network,” U.S. military spokesman Rear-Admiral Patrick Driscoll said. He said Abu Qaswarah, also known as Abu Sara, had trained in Afghanistan and oversaw other foreign militants.

Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, remains one of Iraq’s most restive cities even as violence has dramatically dropped elsewhere. The U.S. military says al Qaeda has chosen to make a stand in Mosul after being driven from other areas.

At least a dozen people were wounded in a series of bomb explosions on Tuesday and Wednesday in the city, and at least two insurgents were killed in clashes with police.

More than 1,000 Christian families have fled the city in recent days after attacks which U.S. forces blame on al Qaeda.

“We saw a string of murders over a number of days. We also have reason to believe that al Qaeda was responsible for it,” the commander of U.S. combat forces in Iraq, Lieutenant-General Lloyd Austin told Reuters, referring to attacks on Christians.

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Austin said U.S. forces and government troops were mobilizing to demonstrate they could keep the Christians safe.

“We’re not going to let al Qaeda ... drive a wedge between the Christians and the rest of the community.”

Al Qaeda and allied groups once controlled many of Iraq’s Sunni Arab areas but have been pushed from towns and villages in the west of the country and Baghdad neighborhoods.

Violence across Iraq is at four-year lows, but Washington still blames al Qaeda for suicide bombs and car bombs that frequently target civilians and Iraqi security forces.

The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has condemned the attacks on Christians in Mosul and has sent police to watch over Christian parts of the city.

Iraq’s Christian minority, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands, has tried to avoid being caught up in years of sectarian conflict, but churches have occasionally been attacked and priests kidnapped and killed.

Reporting by Mariam Karouny and Peter Graff; writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Jon Boyle