BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Iraqi officials touted the capture of al-Qaida in Iraq's No. 2 leader, saying it would reduce violence in the country. Yet two more U.S. Marines were killed over the weekend and an Iraqi soccer star was abducted.
Iraq's national security adviser said Hamed Jumaa Farid al-Saeedi, also known as Abu Humam or Abu Rana, was arrested a few days ago as he hid in a residential building southwest of Baqouba.
The arrest has left al-Qaida in Iraq suffering a ``serious leadership crisis,'' Mouwafak al-Rubaie said Sunday. ``Our troops have dealt fatal and painful blows to this organization.''
He accused the terror suspect of supervising the creation of death squads and ordering assassinations, bombings, kidnappings and attacks on Iraqi police and army checkpoints. ``The operations were brutal and merciless,'' al-Rubaie said.
In Baghdad, a former Olympic soccer player who was planning to move to Syria to play for a club there was kidnapped. Ghanim Ghudayer, 22, considered one of the best players in Baghdad's Air Force Club, was kidnapped Sunday evening by unknown assailants, police said. Authorities said some of the kidnappers were dressed in military uniforms.
The head of the Air Force Club, Samir Kadhim, said Ghudayer had been scheduled to leave for Syria in two or three days to join his new team.
Iraqi sports officials and athletes have frequently faced threats, kidnappings and killings.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military said Monday that two Marines were killed on Sunday in the volatile Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold that has seen some of the worst fighting.
In the capital, a car bomb on Monday morning wounded five civilians, police said, while in Ramadi, 70 miles northwest of Baghdad, gunmen shot and killed Maj. Gen. Mohammad Thumeil, who served in former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's military.
The Iraqi Defense Ministry announced on Monday that 15 people believed to have been involved in insurgency activities had been killed over the last 24 hours by Iraqi army units.
In the past, Iraqi and coalition figures have lauded the capture or killing of senior insurgent figures such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was killed in June, or former dictator Saddam Hussein who was captured in 2003, as a turning point in the violence. But rampant sectarian violence and other attacks have continued.
Not much is known about al-Saeedi, but al-Rubaie said he was the second most important al-Qaida in Iraq leader after Abu Ayyub al-Masri. Al-Masri is believed to have taken over the group after a U.S. airstrike killed al-Zarqawi.
Al-Rubaie said al-Saeedi was ``directly responsible'' for an Iraqi insurgent whom authorities have accused of leading the Feb. 22 bombing against the Shiite shrine in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
The attack inflamed tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims and triggered reprisal attacks that have killed hundreds of Iraqis.
A senior coalition official told The Associated Press that coalition forces were involved in al-Saeedi's arrest, but would not give details on what role they played.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because announcements were being made by Iraqi authorities, said al-Saeedi had been arrested along with three other people near Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Al-Saeedi ``claims to be responsible for more attacks than he can remember'' and has been involved in the insurgency almost from its beginning three years ago, the official said.
Al-Rubaie said al-Saeedi gave information that led to the capture or death of 11 other top al-Qaida in Iraq figures and nine lower-level members.
In the north, tensions rose after the president of the Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, threatened secession on Sunday, two days after he ordered the Iraqi flag to be replaced with the Kurdish one.
``If we want to separate, we will do it, without hesitation or fears,'' Barzani said during an address to the Kurdish parliament.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a terse statement saying only the national flag should be hoisted throughout the country.
The Kurdish region gradually has been gaining more autonomy since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and many Baghdad leaders fear they're pushing for independence.