BAGHDAD (AFP) – The Iraqi government and its tribal allies were scouring dangerous territory on Wednesday for proof that Al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq had been killed in a clash between armed factions.
Brigadier General Abdel Karim Khalaf, the interior ministry’s operations director, admitted Iraq has still not found any body or human remains to back up intelligence reports that Abu Ayyub al-Masri is dead.
“So far we don’t have it, but there are efforts underway to look for the body,” said Khalaf, whose claim 24 hours earlier that Masri had been killed was scorned by Al-Qaeda and treated with caution by Iraq’s US allies.
A coalition of Sunni tribes that has vowed to defeat Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for Masri’s alleged death, saying they tracked him to an area just north of Baghdad and killed him in a dawn ambush on Tuesday.
“We have evidence and eyewitnesses and our contacts with the tribes there all confirm the killing,” said Hamid al-Hayis, head of the Anbar Salvation Council, the armed wing of the Anbar Awakening, an alliance of tribal sheikhs.
Hayis said finding proof of the deaths of Masri and a small group of fellow Al-Qaeda militants was proving difficult, because the orchards and villages of the Nibae area near Taji are still in the hands of insurgents.
“The area is still under their control, early this morning we sent an armed group to scout the situation, but we haven’t heard back from them yet,” he told AFP in a telephone interview.
Masri — said to be a veteran Egyptian jihadi and car bomb expert — took control of Al-Qaeda’s Iraqi franchise in June last year after his predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi died in a US air strike, according to US commanders.
Since then, he has been reported killed or wounded several times, and the latest report has been greeted with caution by the US military.
“I am still not aware of any evidence or presentation of remains or anything like that,” US spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Chris Garver told AFP. “We are conducting dialogue with our Iraqi counterparts.”
In an Internet message, Al-Qaeda dismissed the reported death.
Any confirmation of Masri’s demise would be welcome news for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s embattled government, which this week is due to host a conference of world powers and Iraq’s neighbours in Egypt.
The beleaguered government will ask both the permanent members of the UN Security Council and its neighbours — especially Iran and Syria — for more political support and assistance in choking off funds for militants.
US President George W. Bush is fighting political battles of his own on the domestic front, where there is mounting pressure for him to set a date to begin to bring American troops home.
On Tuesday, Bush vetoed a bill sent by the Democrat-controlled Congress which would have tied funding for the military to a withdrawal timetable.
“Members of the House and Senate passed a bill that substitutes the opinions of politicians for the judgement of our military commanders. So, a few minutes ago, I vetoed the bill,” Bush said in Washington.
“Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure, and that would be irresponsible,” he said as protesters outside the White House chanted “Stop the war now!” and “How many more will die?”
Bush had long pledged to defy Congress by rejecting the bill, which was to allocate 124 billion dollars (91 billion euros) in emergency funding for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The measure linked the funds to a call for US combat troops to start returning home by October 1, and for most of them to be withdrawn by March 2008.
Instead, the military is reinforcing its deployment. A new 3,700-strong brigade of armoured infantry arrived in Baghdad this week, a statement said.
Iraqi and American troops are engaged in a massive security operation in and around the Iraqi capital in a bid to quell sectarian fighting and crack down on Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.
The US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has pledged to present a review of the results of the “surge” in September, while warning the operation will take months to complete.