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Al Qaeda's Iraq network replaces slain leaders

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate has appointed new leaders to replace senior commanders killed by U.S. and Iraqi forces, after naming a “war minister” who threatened bloody days for the country’s majority Shi’ites.

In a statement published on jihadist websites on Saturday, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) said its governing council had selected Abu Baker al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Qurashi as its caliph, or head, and Abu Abdullah al-Hassani al-Qurashi as his deputy and first minister.

The names were most likely noms de guerre rather than the operatives’ real names.

“We ask God to help them make the right decisions, provide them with good followers who ask and urge them to do good, and prevent them from wrong doing,” the statement said.

“And let them finish what the two martyr sheikhs started in lifting the flag of Jihad and seeking the rule of God and building a strong and cherished Islamic state,” it added.

The two leaders replaced the former purported head of the ISI, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, who were killed in a raid north of Baghdad last month.

Masri had previously been viewed by U.S. intelligence as having the more senior of the two positions, but the statement from the ISI described Masri as Baghdadi’s first minister.

The two new appointments followed the naming on Friday of a new “war minister” for the ISI, al-Nasser Lideen Allah Abu Suleiman.

Abu Suleiman declared the launch of a campaign against Iraq’s military and police and said the ISI would deliver “a long gloomy night and dark days colored in blood” to Shi’ites.

Violence in Iraq has dropped since the height of sectarian carnage in 2006-07, but bombings are still common and a March 7 election that produced no outright winner has fueled tensions.

A series of attacks since the election in which dozens of people have been killed has been blamed on an effort by al Qaeda in Iraq’s remaining network to prove to its supporters that it was still a potent force despite the loss of its commanders.

Intelligence analysts believe ISI to have been created by al Qaeda in Iraq as an umbrella group for local insurgents. Iraqis were named to head it in an effort to dispel criticism that al Qaeda in Iraq was dominated by foreigners.

Iraq’s minority Sunnis feel they have been marginalized by the political ascent of the Shi’ite majority since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

At least 100,000 Iraqis have been killed in the seven years since the invasion.

Reporting by Aseel Kami; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Diana Abdallah