BAGHDAD – BAGHDAD (AP) — Leery of using a mobile phone, the militant tasked with directing some of Baghdad's deadliest recent bombings would get his orders from al-Qaida in Iraq's leadership by meeting a go-between near a grocery store named Mr. Milk.
So after Iraqi security forces nabbed the militant, Munaf Abdul-Rahim al-Rawi, it was to Mr. Milk's store that he led investigators. That was the first step culminating in what Iraqi and American officials called a devastating blow to the terror group: the killing of al-Qaida in Iraq's secretive two top leaders in a raid last week.
In an interview this week with The Associated Press, al-Rawi offered a rare insight into the shadowy terror group that continues to plague Iraq after years of deadly attacks aiming to push the country into civil war.
Al-Rawi's arrest itself was something of a coup for Iraqi security forces. Known by his underlings as "the dictator," al-Rawi commanded al-Qaida operations in Baghdad, and an Iraqi security spokesman confirmed that al-Rawi played a role in a number of attacks, including the August 2009 bombings of several government ministries that killed more than 100 people.
On March 11, al-Rawi was passing through a Baghdad checkpoint, where a guard recognized him from his photo on a most-wanted list and arrested him, al-Rawi said.
But the capture was kept secret from the public, as he gave investigators information that eventually led to the April 18 strike that killed Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri.
Now al-Rawi will likely face trial for his own role. In the 45-minute interview, he shrugged off worries over his fate. "My hope is to enter paradise," al-Rawi said. "One of the investigators said a death sentence is waiting for me. I told him, 'It is normal.'"
Security spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi described al-Rawi as the militant who led investigators to al-Baghdadi and al-Masri. Speaking to reporters last week, U.S. Brig. Gen. Ralph Baker also said al-Rawi was a vital source who along with others "have all been instrumental in leading to the success of the capture and the killing of the senior leadership in al-Qaida."
Al-Masri, a weapons expert who was trained in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, was the national leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Baghdadi was the self-described leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, an offshoot of al-Qaida, and was so elusive that at times U.S. officials questioned whether he was a real person.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki heralded their deaths in a news conference where he brandished pictures of the two militants' bloody bodies. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called the killings a "potentially devastating blow" to al-Qaida in Iraq. But four days later, officials believe al-Qaida struck back in a series of bombings that killed 72 people in Iraq's bloodiest day of the year so far.
An AP reporter was allowed by Iraqi security officials to interview al-Rawi. The reporter was taken in a car with blacked-out windows to an undisclosed location in the Baghdad area that appeared to be a military facility. Wearing a blue track suit, the 35-year-old al-Rawi spoke in a spartan office, and an Iraqi security official was present for parts of the interview.
Al-Rawi warned that after the two leaders' deaths, al-Qaida in Iraq "will implement revenge operations to prove it's still strong."
Al-Rawi described how he would meet a go-between he identified only as "Jaafar," who would relay messages between him and al-Masri. He said he had little contact with al-Baghdadi.
Worried about government monitoring of mobile phones and the Internet, al-Rawi and Jaafar would meet in western Baghdad's primarily Sunni Mansour neighborhood, on the street outside the Mr. Milk grocery store. Iraqi security officials said the meeting place was picked at random, and no one in the neighborhood was implicated in the terror group.
After his arrest, al-Rawi said he detailed the meetings to investigators, who promptly put him at the center of a sting operation to catch Jaafar.
"They allowed me to meet him but they surrounded all the area nearby," al-Rawi said. "Then they arrested him."
Two Iraqi security officials with knowledge of the investigation said Jaafar pointed Iraqi and U.S. forces to the Tikrit-area safehouse where al-Masri and al-Baghdadi were meeting, triggering the raid. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.
Jaafar is being held in Iraqi custody, and investigators have also arrested a number of members of the cell that worked under al-Rawi, the security officials said.
During the raid, al-Masri's assistant and al-Baghdadi's son were also killed and 16 other people were arrested. A U.S. soldier was killed in a helicopter crash during the operation. Iraqi officials say documents from the safehouse have helped them learn a great deal about the terror group and its workings.
Al-Rawi described his career in the Sunni insurgency that erupted after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, eventually leading him into al-Qaida in Iraq.
He said he fought against U.S. troops in the brutal April 2004 battle for the western city of Fallujah. There, he said, he met al-Masri, al-Baghdadi and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant who would ally himself with Osama bin Laden and create al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi was killed in a 2006 U.S. airstrike, succeeded by al-Masri.
Al-Rawi said he was arrested in June 2004 in Baghdad and spent the next three years at U.S. military detention centers until 2007. U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Bob Owen on Friday confirmed al-Rawi was jailed for that period.
After his release, "I resumed my jihad work," al-Rawi said.
In the interview, he boasted about masterminding at least several Baghdad suicide bombings against the American military as well as Jan. 25 attacks that hit three hotels where U.S. and other Western journalists live — an attack that he estimated cost $100,000.
In the August ministry bombings, al-Rawi said he bought the truck that detonated outside the Foreign Ministry, and the explosives he generally used were a handmade mix, including fertilizer, that "the detection devices couldn't discover." He said the terror group often financed itself by extorting money from Iraqi companies.
Al-Rawi said he decided to confess after his arrest because "security forces already know everything about me and my links." He said, "I felt that it is useless to deny or conceal information."
Associated Press Writers Lara Jakes and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.