BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraqi officials believe the alleged leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, has been killed in an internal struggle within the militant group, the interior ministry said Tuesday.
Speaking on state television, the ministry’s operations chief Brigadier General Abdel Karim Khalaf, said he had seen strong intelligence information showing that the Egyptian militant had died in a feud between militants.
“The clashes took place among themselves. There were clashes within the groups of Al-Qaeda. He was liquidated by them. Our forces had nothing to do with it,” he said.
“Some information, you know, needs confirmation, but this information is very strong,” he said, suggesting more investigations should be carried out.
A US military spokesman could not confirm the report.
“We can’t confirm anything yet. We are seeing the reports in the media as well and are checking into this,” said Lieutenant Colonel Chris Garver.
“While I hope it is true, because of misreporting about the fate of senior leaders in the past — we seem to capture or kill al-Masri about every month — we are going to be doubly sure before we attempt to confirm or deny anything.”
Two months ago there were reports in the Iraqi media that Masri had been wounded in a shootout with Iraqi soldiers, but these later proved false.
Masri’s name — which means Egyptian — came to world attention in June 2006 when the US military claimed that he had taken over control of Al-Qaeda in Iraq after his predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was slain in a US air strike.
The US State Department’s Rewards for Justice programme as put a one million dollar bounty on Masri’s head.
Insurgent websites referred to the new Al-Qaeda leader as Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, but US spokesman Major General William Caldwell said at the time that both names refer to the same person.
Since Zarqawi’s death, devastating car bombs aimed at Iraq’s Shiite population, the hallmark of Al-Qaeda’s attacks, have continued unabated, despite recent US-led effort to restore stability to Baghdad.
In February, Operation Fardh al-Qanun (Imposing Law) swamped the capital with thousands of extra US and Iraqi troops, which US officials say has cut the sectarian killings by Shiite death squads by two thirds.
But bombings continue unabated and, if confirmed, Masri’s death would be a rare piece of good news for the Iraqi government and its US allies.
The claim was made on the fourth anniversary of US President George W. Bush’s famous speech on an aircraft carrier in front of a banner reading “Mission Accomplished” in which he announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
Bush is now locked in a battle with a Democratic Congress that is seeking to withdraw US troops from Iraq.
On Tuesday, gunmen south of Baghdad ambushed a civilian bus, riddling it with bullets, killing 11 passengers, including women and children, in a region known for its sectarian tensions.
Police in Baghdad also reported finding 27 corpses overnight, in a sign that the city’s sectarian death squads have not yet been defeated.
Nevertheless, the death toll among Iraqis was down in April, according to government figures, with only 1,689 deaths, nearly 20 percent less than in March, due to the drop in sectarian killings.
Another four people were killed when a salvo of mortar rounds rained down on Latifiyah, a town 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of the capital, not far from Iskandiriyah.
Another civilian was killed when a roadside bomb was triggered by an Iraqi army patrol in the same area.