Police in Iraq found the bodies of 22 Iraqi men who had been shot to death in southern part of the country, the government said on Tuesday.
The victims, all in civilian clothes, had been shot in the head and dumped in a deserted area of Badrah district northeast of Kut (search) and 100 miles southeast of Baghdad (search), said Maj. Felah Al-Mohammedawi of Iraq's Interior Ministry.
He said most of the bodies were blindfolded with their hands tied together with rope or strips of plastic. Al-Mohammedawi said the victims seemed to have been killed several days ago. Their identities were not immediately known, but the district near the Iranian border is mostly Shiite (search).
Several times in recent months, large groups of bodies have been found in several areas of Iraq, including Baghdad. Police often blame Sunni (search)-led insurgents for such killings.
Al-Mohammedawi said the cause of the deaths near Kut would be investigated.
Also on Tuesday, U.S. and Iraqi authorities said their forces had killed the No. 2 official in the Al Qaeda in Iraq organization in a weekend raid in Baghdad, claiming to have struck a "painful blow" to the country's most feared insurgent group.
Abdullah Abu Azzam (search) led Al Qaeda's operations in Baghdad, planning a brutal wave of homicide bombings in the capital since April, killing hundreds of people, officials said. He also controlled the finances for foreign fighters that flowed into Iraq to join the insurgency.
Abu Azzam, who an Iraqi government spokesman said was an Iraqi, was the top deputy to the group's leader, Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search). Abu Azzam was on a list of Iraq's 29 most-wanted insurgents issued by the U.S. military in February and had a bounty of $50,000 on his head.
Elsewhere, a homicide bomber attacked Iraqis applying for jobs as policemen in Baqouba (search), 30 miles north of Baghdad, killing nine and wounding 21.
The U.S. military also said a Marine was killed Monday by a roadside bomb in the town of Khaldiyah, west of Baghdad. The death brought to 1,918 the number of U.S. troops who have died since the Iraq war started in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
It was not immediately clear what effect Abu Azzam's death would have on Al Qaeda in Iraq (search), which has been one of the deadliest militant groups, carrying out suicide attacks that targeted the country's Shiite majority.
The U.S. military has claimed to have killed or captured leading al-Zarqawi aides in the past and attacks have continued unabated — although Abu Azzam appeared to be a more significant figure.
Iraqi government spokesman Laith Kubba (search) called the killing of Abu Azzam a "painful blow" to Al Qaeda, but warned that the group would likely carry out revenge attacks.
Abu Azzam was killed early Sunday when U.S. and Iraqi forces raided a high-rise apartment building in Baghdad, Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman, told the AP.
"They went in to capture him, he did not surrender, and he was killed in the raid," Boylan said.
The Iraqi and U.S. forces targeted the building after a tip from an Iraqi citizen, Kubba said. During the raid, the troops captured another militant in the apartment with Abu Azzam, Kubba said.
Abu Azzam — whose real name is Abdullah Najim Abdullah Mohamed Al-Jawari — was the No. 2 figure in Al Qaeda in Iraq, Kubba and Boylan said.
He had claimed responsibility for the assassinations of a number of top politicians, including a car bomb in May 2004 that killed Izzadine Saleem, the president of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, and a July 2004 attack that killed the governor of Nineveh province, the military said.
He was the group's "amir" or leader in Anbar, the vast western province that is the heartland of the insurgency, until spring, when he became the amir in Baghdad and led operations in and around the capital.
He was "responsible for the recent upsurge in violent attacks in the city since April 2005," the military said.
"We continue to decimate the leadership of the al-Qaeda in Iraq terrorist network and continue to disrupt their operations," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, Multi-National Force-Iraq spokesman. "By taking Abu Azzam off the street, another close associate of Zarqawi, we have dealt another serious blow to al-Zarqawi's terrorist organization."
Abu Azzam "personally planned and ordered suicide car bomb attacks" in Baghdad and was responsible for financing for the group and its "international communications," Kubba said.
Abu Azzam's death was followed by two other successes against Al Qaeda in Iraq's leadership, officials said — the group's leader in the northern city of Mosul surrendered to the Iraqi military, and its leader in the town of Karabila in the sensitive region near the Syrian border was killed.
The Karabila leader, identified only as Abu Nasser, died along with several others Monday in a raid on the group's headquarters in the city, Kubba told a news conference, without elaborating. Gen. Wafiq al-Samaraei, the Iraqi president's national security adviser, said Abu Nasser was killed in a U.S. airstrike. The U.S. military confirmed an airstrike in the region Monday, but gave no details on casualties.
The area near the Syrian border is key to the infiltration of foreign fighters joining Iraq's insurgency. Kubba acknowledged that "foreigners move freely" in the region.
The Baqouba suicide bomber slipped into a building where the Iraqis were applying to join Iraq's Quick Reaction Police Force, said a commander who spoke on condition of anonymity because of concerns about his security.
Nine Iraqis were killed and 21 wounded in the blast, said Adhid Mita'ab, an official at Baqouba General Hospital.
The attack, along with the news of the Marine's death, raised to at least 62 the number of people killed in the past three days in Iraq, less than a month before a national referendum on Iraq's draft constitution.
In Baghdad, visiting NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (search) opened a long-awaited training academy for Iraqi military officers.
"This center makes and marks a significant step toward a more secure Iraq," de Hoop Scheffer said after hoisting a NATO flag over the center. "NATO is here to help the Iraqi government to develop the tools it needs."
NATO's role in Iraq has been limited to training Iraqi forces and supplying equipment, due to opposition for a wider role led by France and Germany.