BAGHDAD &

The highest-ranking Iraqi leader of al-Qaida in Iraq has been arrested and told interrogators that Osama bin Laden's inner circle wields considerable influence over the Iraqi group, the U.S. command said today.




Khaled Abdul-Fattah Dawoud Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, who was captured in Mosul on July 4, carried messages from bin Laden, and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, to the Egyptian-born head of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Ayub al-Masri, said Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, a military spokesman.




"Communication between the senior al-Qaida leadership and al-Masri frequently went through al-Mashhadani," Bergner said. "There is a clear connection between al-Qaida in Iraq and al-Qaida senior leadership outside Iraq."




The relationship between the two groups has been the subject of debate, with some private analysts believing the foreign-based leadership plays a minor role in day-to-day operations.




Some have suggested that linking al-Qaida in Iraq to bin Laden is simply an attempt to justify the Iraq war as an extension of the global conflict that began with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.




But the U.S. military has insisted that there are links between the local al-Qaida group and the bin Laden clique and has released captured letters from time to time, suggesting the foreign-based leaders provide at least broad direction.




Bergner said al-Mashhadani had told interrogators that al-Qaida leaders outside the country "continue to provide directions, they continue to provide a focus for operations, they continue to flow foreign fighters into Iraq."




Pointing to the foreign influence in al-Qaida undermines support for the organization among nationalistically minded Iraqis, including some in insurgent groups that have broken with al-Qaida.




In the latest violence, a series of roadside bombs exploded early this morning in separate areas of east Baghdad, killing 11 people and wounding more than a dozen, police said. The U.S. military reported three more American soldiers had died in action in the Iraqi capital.




Bergner said that al-Mashhadani and al-Masri had used an Iraqi actor to put a local stamp on their foreign-run organization, by co-founding "a virtual organization in cyberspace called the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006."




In Web postings, the Islamic State of Iraq has identified its leader as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, a name indicating Iraqi origin, with the Egyptian al-Masri as minister of war. There are no known photos of al-Baghdadi.




Bergner said al-Mashhadani had told interrogators that al-Baghdadi is a "fictional role" created by al-Masri and that an actor with an Iraqi accent is used for audio recordings of speeches posted on the Web.




"In his words, the Islamic State of Iraq is a front organization that masks the foreign influence and leadership within al-Qaida in Iraq in an attempt to put an Iraqi face on the leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq," Bergner said.




He said al-Mashhadani was a leader of the militant Ansar al-Sunnah group before joining al-Qaida in Iraq 21/2 years ago. Al-Mashhadani served as the al-Qaida media chief for Baghdad and then was appointed the media chief for the whole country.




Al-Qaida in Iraq was proclaimed in 2004 by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led a group called Tawhid and Jihad, responsible for the beheading of several foreign hostages, whose final moments were captured on videotapes provided to Arab television stations.




Al-Zarqawi posted Web statements declaring his allegiance to bin Laden and began using the name of al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Diyala province in June 2006 and was replaced by al-Masri.




The first of today's roadside blasts occurred about 7:30 a.m. near the Dhubat neighborhood, killing four civilians and wounding seven others, police said.




Two more blasts occurred two minutes apart in another area of eastern Baghdad, killing seven people and wounding seven, police said. The dead included two traffic policemen and five civilians, police said.




The policemen spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.




The three American soldiers were killed Tuesday in separate bombings in the capital, the U.S. command said.




Two were killed in west Baghdad and another died in an east Baghdad bombing, the military said.




Four other Americans were wounded in the east Baghdad blast, the command said. Two insurgents responsible for the attack were identified, engaged and killed, the statement added.




Those latest deaths occurred as the U.S. Senate was in an all-night session as Democrats sought to dramatize opposition to the Iraq war.




Democratic leaders conceded they were unlikely to gain the votes needed to advance troop withdrawal legislation blocked by Republicans.




Meanwhile, dozens of Baghdad residents joined a protest today in Firdous Square in central Baghdad to demand the government improve security and public services.




The demonstrators held Iraqi flags and banners, urging authorities to "stop mocking us" and to make its only goal "the protection of Iraqis."




"Our demands are not big ones. We need security, electricity and water," said Sheik Nihad al-Sharqawi. "The government has to ensure happiness and prosperity to every Iraqi citizen. Otherwise, it should step down."




The U.S. military has stepped up the pace of operations in recent weeks, hoping to drive Sunni and Shiite extremists from sanctuaries in and around Baghdad as they scramble to train enough Iraqi security forces to prevent the gunmen from regrouping.