BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – A man seized by Iraqi forces is not the head of al Qaeda in Iraq, a senior U.S. military official said on Friday, following an announcement by several Iraqi officials that Abu Ayyub al-Masri had been captured.
Iraqi security sources had already begun to cast doubt on the earlier announcement that Masri, an Egyptian also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, had been captured in an operation in Mosul on Wednesday. One senior security source in Mosul said the man seized in that raid was an Iraqi. “He has not been detained,” the U.S. military official told Reuters, without giving further details.
It is not the first time there has been confusion over the fate of Masri. Iraq’s Interior Ministry said a year ago he had been killed, but soon afterwards Sunni Islamist al Qaeda released an audio tape purportedly from him.
The detention of Masri would have been another blow for al Qaeda, which has been forced to regroup in northern Iraq after a wave of U.S. military assaults in the past year.
Earlier, Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul-Karim Khalaf said a detained associate of Masri took Iraqi security forces late on Wednesday to where the al Qaeda leader was hiding.
After being detained, the man confessed to being the al Qaeda in Iraq leader, he said.
Duraid Kashmula, the governor of Nineveh province of which Mosul is the capital, had told Reuters he was certain the detained man was Masri.
Al Qaeda in Iraq was headed by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi until he was killed in a U.S. air strike in June 2006. His successor, Masri, was Zarqawi’s close associate, and has a U.S. bounty of $5 million on his head.
U.S. officials blame al Qaeda in Iraq for most big bombings in the country, including an attack on a revered Shi’ite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 that set off a wave of sectarian killings that nearly tipped Iraq into all-out civil war.
A build-up of U.S. troops last year allowed the military to conduct a series of offensives against the group. The emergence of Sunni Arab tribal security units also helped to provide intelligence on al Qaeda activities.
The result was that al Qaeda has largely been pushed out of Baghdad and its former stronghold in the western province of Anbar to areas in northern Iraq, such as Mosul.