The US military yesterday said there were “no operational reports” so far to confirm Iraqi government reports that the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq has been arrested.
Iraqi authorities on Thursday said Iraqi police commandos captured the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq in a raid in the northern city of Mosul, which, if confirmed, would be significant blow to the Sunni insurgency in its last urban stronghold.
Early yesterday, however, the US military said there were “no operational reports” to confirm that Abu Ayyub al-Masri — also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir — was captured. News of the reported capture was trumpeted by Iraqi state television and numerous Iraqi government and provincial officials.
Iraqi authorities could not be reached for comment yesterday, but a security official did confirm that the suspect was handed over to US military authorities in Mosul after the arrest.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media.
Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said late on Thursday that the arrest was made in Mosul, where insurgents have sought to establish a foothold after being uprooted from Baghdad and surrounding areas last year.
Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf said the arrest occurred “at midnight and during the primary investigations he admitted that he is Abu Hamza Al-Muhajir.”
There have been false alarms in the past about al-Masri. At least twice — in 2006 and May last year — reports circulated that he was dead, but they were later proved wrong.
Al-Masri took over al-Qaeda in Iraq after its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed on June 7, 2006, in a US airstrike northeast of Baghdad.
Mosul governor Duraid Kashmola said that police, acting on a tip, made the arrest in a poor Sunni neighborhood, Wadi Hajar. Twelve other people were also arrested.
A police official, who participated in the operation, said “we found him lying on a bed in the basement of a house, wearing dishdasha gown.”
The official who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was a swift arrest and the bearded man did not resist.
US officials said al-Masri — whose name means “The Egyptian” in Arabic — joined al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s and trained as a car bombing expert before traveling to Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003.
Al-Masri was a previous member of the extremist Islamic Jihad in Egypt and a protege of Ayman al-Zawahri, who became bin Laden’s No. 2 after the group joined with al-Qaeda in 1998, the military said.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq, last year announced an “Islamic Cabinet” for Iraq and named al-Masri as “minister of war.” The US military had put out a US$5 million bounty for al-Masri.
Meanwhile, the US military yesterday said US soldiers killed six Shiite extremists, who attacked US forces with shoulder fired rockets and small arms, in several clashes in Baghdad’s Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City on Thursday.
Government envoys set strict demands for Shiite militias to end their battles against US-led forces in Baghdad in meetings on Thursday, but it was unlikely that militiamen would abide by the conditions.
Thousands of civilians have already fled Sadr City — home to nearly 40 percent of Baghdad’s population — and aid groups say some areas are desperately short of food and medicine after seven weeks of street battles.