BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The U.S. military denied on Thursday reports it had killed the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and Iraqi officials said they were awaiting the results of DNA tests on several suspects killed in a raid.
U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson said U.S. forces had conducted a raid “recently” on an al Qaeda cell in which suspected insurgents were killed.
“We thought he may have been among those killed but now we do not believe this was the case. We do not believe that we have killed al-Masri, but we are still doing DNA tests.”
Masri, an Egyptian who is also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, assumed the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq after the death of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June.
An Iraqi government source, who did not want to be named, said Masri and three of his aides were killed in the western Iraqi town of Haditha on Wednesday after U.S. forces launched an airstrike and ground assault on a safe house.
An aide to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, said DNA tests were still being conducted on the bodies. The tests suggested one of the dead was an al Qaeda leader but not Masri, he told Reuters.
Earlier this month, Iraq’s National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie said Masri’s “days are numbered.”
“I tell the Iraqi people that we will get you Abu Ayyub al-Masri either as a corpse or tied up to face justice soon,” he told reporters on October 1.
In late June, the United States put a $5 million bounty on the head of Masri, who warned of more attacks against U.S.-led forces in Iraq in an Internet audio tape posted on September 7.
Al Qaeda makes up about 5 percent of Iraq’s Sunni Arab insurgency but its suicide bombers have caused some of the worst violence, often killing more than 100 people in a single attack.
The U.S. military accuses Sunni Islamist al Qaeda of fuelling sectarian conflict in Iraq that has pitched Sunnis against Shi’ites and raised fears of all-out civil war.
It says U.S. and Iraqi forces have arrested or killed hundreds of al Qaeda militants since the death of Zarqawi, severely disrupting the group’s ability to launch attacks.