BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The leader of al Qaeda in Iraq is still being hunted, the U.S. military said on Friday, after Iraqi officials wrongly declared Abu Ayyub al-Masri had been caught.
The detention of Masri would have been another blow for al Qaeda, which has been forced to regroup in northern Iraq after a wave of U.S. military assaults in and around Baghdad.
Iraqi officials said the confusion was caused after a man with a similar name was detained in an operation in the northern city of Mosul late on Wednesday.
Masri, an Egyptian, has a U.S. bounty of $5 million on his head. “He has not been detained,” a senior U.S. military official told Reuters, declining to comment further.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh criticised Iraqi officials for earlier saying Masri had been caught.
“The person who was detained has nothing to do with him. He is not even a senior leader in al Qaeda, he is just an ordinary member,” Dabbagh said.
It is not the first time there has been confusion over the fate of Masri. Iraq’s Interior Ministry said a year ago he had been killed, but soon afterwards Sunni Islamist al Qaeda released an audio tape purportedly from him.
Al Qaeda in Iraq was headed by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi until he was killed in a U.S. air strike in June 2006. His successor, Masri, was Zarqawi’s close associate.
Senior Iraqi security officials had earlier said a captured associate of Masri took Iraqi forces on Wednesday to where he was thought to be hiding. After being detained, the man said he was the al Qaeda in Iraq leader, who is also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, they said.
But the detained man just happened to share the name Abu Hamza, which in Arabic means father of Hamza. “Abu” is a common way for men who have children to be addressed in the Arab world.
U.S. officials blame al Qaeda in Iraq for most big bombings in the country, including an attack on a revered Shi‘ite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 that set off a wave of sectarian killings that nearly tipped Iraq into all-out civil war.
A build-up of U.S. troops last year allowed the military to conduct a series of offensives against the group. The emergence of Sunni Arab tribal security units also helped to provide intelligence on al Qaeda activities.
The result was that al Qaeda has largely been pushed out of Baghdad and its former stronghold in the western province of Anbar to areas in northern Iraq like Mosul, which U.S. generals say is its last remaining urban stronghold in the country.
Al Qaeda in Iraq shares the name and ideology of Osama bin Laden’s network, which was blamed for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Structural and operational ties between the two are unclear.
The U.S. military says al Qaeda in Iraq is largely foreign-led but that its foot soldiers are mainly Iraqis.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim, Tim Cocks and Khalid al-Ansary; editing by Mark Trevelyan