The Iraqi government presented the first image of the alleged leader of an al-Qaeda front group on Tuesday in a bid to prove the right suspect was in custody despite skepticism that he even exists.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called Abu Omar al-Baghdadi “the head of evil” and accused him of trying to incite a sectarian civil war and working with other insurgents who remained loyal to Saddam Hussein.
“This criminal had close relations with the former regime and maintained a sinister alliance with Saddam’s followers,” he said in a statement released by his office.
Authorities described al-Baghdadi’s capture, which was announced last week, as a major setback for Sunni insurgents trying to intensify attacks after a relative lull.
But the capture or death of other high-ranking insurgent figures in the past — including former al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 — has done little to slow the bombings.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he could not confirm al-Baghdadi’s capture and described as “fairly accurate” a statement that every day that goes by without a confirmation increases the suspicion that it’s not him.
Meanwhile prominent writer Muhub Ruyat al-Rahman, whose comments are widely read on Islamic Web sites, signaled that insurgent groups were also not certain that the man captured was al-Baghdadi.
He warned his comrades the claim could be a propaganda ploy and said even if it proved true, the death or arrest of leaders would not stop the march of holy war.
The identity of al-Baghdadi — shown in the photo unveiled at a news conference with a close-cropped beard and black T-shirt — has frequently been questioned.
The US military has even said al-Baghdadi could be a fictitious character used to give an Iraqi face to an organization dominated by foreign al-Qaeda fighters. Even if he does exist, it was unclear what his role is in the terror group — whether he really runs it or whether he’s a figurehead.
Iraqi officials also have reported al-Baghdadi’s arrest or killing before, only to later say they were wrong.
In 2007, Iraq’s government reported that al-Baghdadi had been killed and released photos of what it said was his body.
Later, security officials said they had arrested al-Baghdadi.
In both cases, the US military said at the time it could not be confirmed.
The reports turned out to be untrue.
But Iraqi military spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi said the government was certain the man arrested on Thursday was al-Baghdadi.
He displayed the picture but offered no other proof, saying the investigation was ongoing and that security forces were still trying to glean information from the detainee.
A senior Iraqi security official said authorities did not want to release too much information because it could tip off members of his insurgent network.