Tests are being done on DNA taken from a slain militant to determine if he is al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri, but the US military said it is "highly unlikely" that the terror chief had been killed.
A US military spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Barry Johnson, said that a number of al-Qaeda suspects were killed in a recent raid in western Anbar province and initially "we thought there was a possibility al-Masri was among them."
"As we did further analysis, we determined that it was highly unlikely that he was killed," Johnson said.
"We are doing DNA testing to completely eliminate the possibility that this would be al-Masri, but we do not believe it is," he said.
Johnson would not say what kind of a DNA sample existed that tests of the body might be compared to, but said "we're confident we will be make a positive ID, or not, when the time comes."
The process "can take weeks to resolve," Johnson said.
Reports `not true'
Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Qassim al-Moussawi said the "report of [al-Masri's] death is not true."
Al-Masri, whose pseudonym means "the Egyptian," took over al-Qaeda in Iraq after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed on June 7 in a US airstrike northeast of Baghdad. Al-Masri is also known by another pseudonym, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, but Iraqi intelligence has his real name and samples of his fingerprints for comparison, said al-Moussawi, who refused to divulge the real name.
Iraqi Deputy Interior Minister Major-General Hussein Kamal said the raid took place two days ago, but he and Johnson refused to give further details. Two Arab satellite television stations reported that the militants were killed by US forces during a raid near Haditha.
On Sunday, Iraq's senior national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, told reporters US and Iraqi forces were closing in on al-Masri.
But on Wednesday, US military spokesman Major-General William Caldwell sounded more skeptical.
"I'd love to tell you we're going to get him tonight," he told reporters.
"But, obviously, that's a very key, critical target for all of us operating here in Iraq. ... We feel very comfortable that we're continuing to move forward very deliberately in an effort to find him and kill or capture him," he said.
Caldwell said a personal assistant to al-Masri had been captured in a Sept. 28 raid in Baghdad, the second figure close to the al-Qaeda in Iraq chief to be captured that month.
"We're obviously gleaning some key critical information from those individuals and others that have been picked up," he said.
Al-Masri took over al-Qaeda in Iraq after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed on June 7 in a US missile strike northeast of Baghdad.
US officials said al-Masri joined an extremist group led by al-Qaeda's No. 2 official in 1982.
He joined al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in 1999 and trained as a car bombing expert before traveling to Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003.
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