Shrine bomb mastermind killed

US forces killed the mastermind of two attacks on a Shiite mosque at the heart of Iraq's sectarian conflict, the military says.

But despite the announcement of the high-profile killing and wider operations to flush out Sunni extremists, 15 Iraqis were killed in a string of attacks in the war-torn capital Baghdad and sectarian flashpoints to the south.

Haitham al-Badri, whom the US military linked to a string of lethal bombings and described as the Al-Qaeda in Iraq "emir" in Salaheddin province, was killed in an air attack east of the northern city of Samarra last Thursday.

Close air support was scrambled after surveillance spotted a group of fighters apparently preparing an ambush, US military spokesman Rear Admiral Mark Fox told a news conference.

Helicopter straffing killed Badri, who was positively identified by close associates and family members, the spokesman says.

Admiral Fox says Badri was the believed mastermind behind a February 2006 attack on the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra, widely seen as the trigger of Iraq's sectarian strife, and another attack on June 13 that destroyed its two minarets.

The mosque was all but destroyed by the first bombing by Sunni extremists, which brought down its famed Golden Dome.

It was hit again on June 13 this year in a follow-up bomb blast that brought down two minarets.

Reprisals

The first attack sparked Shiite reprisals that led to a bitter vendetta between rival sectarian factions which in turn led to Iraq's collapse into a generalised civil conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Admiral Fox says Badri was also involved in a bomb attack in the northern city of Kirkuk in June 2006 that killed 20 Iraqis and an attack on an Iraqi Army checkpoint two months later in which 29 local security forces died.

The Iraqi authorities have also accused Badri of killing an Iraqi television journalist, Atwar Bahjat, who worked for Dubai's Al-Arabiya network, after she went to Samarra to cover the February shrine bombing.

She was kidnapped and murdered with her cameraman and soundman.

Links to Saddam Hussein

Badri is thought to have been linked to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein's former regime, which collapsed after the 2003 US-led invasion. He joined Ansar al-Sunna, a Sunni extremist militant group, and ultimately Al-Qaeda.

Badri was killed during a US-backed Iraqi forces sweep of Samarra that was launched last week to expel Al-Qaeda's in country affiliate from the city, where it was accused of the two attacks on the shrine.

More than 80 suspects were arrested during the operation launched by more than 1,000 troops with support from US paratroopers since last Tuesday.

US forces say they killed four rebels and arrested seven people in further operations on Sunday targeting the same extremist network.

But in Baghdad, violence returned with the Sunday morning rush hour as mortar rounds slammed into cars queueing at a petrol station, killing 11civilians and wounding more than a dozen, security officials and medics say.

In the pandemonium after the attack, another mortar shell crashed into a nearby house in the eastern neighbourhood of Al-Fudaylia.

The victims were transferred to at least three city hospitals, where medics at two casualty units confirmed 11 people died and 16 were wounded.

Bodies found

Meanwhile, Iraqi police said today they've found 60 decomposed bodies dumped in thick grass in Baquba, north of Baghdad.

There was no indication of how the 60 people had been killed, police say.

Baquba is the capital of volatile Diyala province, where thousands of extra US and Iraqi soldiers have been sent to stem growing violence.