BAGHDAD, Iraq (AFP) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Tuesday hailed the arrest of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, said to be the leader of the Al-Qaeda umbrella group blamed for a wave of bloodshed across the nation.
Maliki referred to Baghdadi as “the head of evil, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” and said he had ties to the followers of the secular former regime of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi security forces released what they said was the first known picture of Baghdadi, showing a middle-aged man with dark skin and a close-cropped beard and moustache wearing a black shirt.
“The criminal terrorist Abu Omar al-Baghdadi is in the hands of justice,” Maliki’s office said in a statement, referring to the shadowy leader who the US military once described as a fictional character.
Iraqi police announced on Thursday they had arrested Baghdadi in the capital but did not release any pictures of the man. The Al-Qaeda leader has been reported captured or killed several times in the past.
Maliki hailed the “new victory” of Iraqi security forces in arresting Baghdadi, whom he accused of trying to ignite a civil war in Iraq through a devastating campaign of bombings against civilians and Shiite holy places.
“This terrorist has strong relations with the previous regime and made a devilish alliance with its followers that left its mark on the innocent bodies of children, women and sheikhs in bloody scenes.”
However, the Pentagon raised doubts about the arrest, with spokesman Bryan Whitman telling reporters: “I still can’t confirm that report to you.”
But he said he had “no reason to suspect that there isn’t a particular individual.”
Baghdadi is said to be the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, a self-styled umbrella organisation for Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgent groups fighting US and Iraqi forces that has pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden.
“Al-Qaeda consists of leaders, individual members and financing, and surely when one of these elements is affected, it affects (the others),” government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told the Al-Arabiya television.
“But (Al-Qaeda) is still a threat to the security situation, and the Iraqi government understands this… I imagine that revenge operations are already being organised, but clearly we have no choice but to confront these Satanic groups with all our strength.”
Dabbagh told AFP last week that Baghdadi’s real name is Ahmed Abed Ahmed and that he is a 40-year-old former officer in the Iraqi army.
In July 2007 a US military spokesman had said Baghdadi was a fictional character designed to put an Iraqi face on a terror group led by foreigners and that the voice on his audiotapes was that of an actor.
The US military has always said that the real leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq is Abu Hamza al-Muhajir — better known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri — a veteran Egyptian militant named Al-Qaeda chief in June 2006 following the death of his better-known Jordanian predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a US air raid.
Over the last two years US and Iraqi forces have allied with local tribes and former insurgents to drive Al-Qaeda out of most of its former strongholds, but the group continues to carry out regular attacks in some parts of Iraq.
More than 150 people were killed last week alone in a string of deadly suicide bombings, including an attack near a revered Shiite shrine in Baghdad that killed 65 people and bore the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda.
At the height of Iraq’s sectarian violence in 2006 Al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups killed thousands of civilians when they bombed markets and mosques crowded with Shiite Muslims.
Shiite militias at the same time were rounding up thousands of Sunni men, executing them, and dumping their bodies in the streets.