Suspected al Qaeda Iraq chief still at large

Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, alleged head of al Qaeda's Iraq wing, is not the man arrested in Mosul late Wednesday, a senior U.S. military official said on Friday, denying reports by Iraqi officials.


The leader of al Qaeda in Iraq is still being hunted, the U.S. military said on Friday, after Iraqi officials declared Abu Ayyub al-Masri had been caught in what is the latest episode of false claims about the militant.

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 security sources had already begun to cast doubt on the earlier announcement that Masri, an Egyptian with a U.S. bounty of $5 million on his head, had been picked up in an operation in the northern city of Mosul on Wednesday.

One senior Iraqi security source in Mosul said the man caught in that raid was an Iraqi.

"He has not been detained," a senior U.S. military official told Reuters, without giving further details.

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.

Earlier, Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul-Karim Khalaf said a detained associate of Masri took Iraqi security forces late on Wednesday to where the al Qaeda leader was apparently hiding.

After being detained, the man said he was the al Qaeda in Iraq leader, who is also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, Khalaf said.


But a second Iraqi security source said the man detained in the operation just happened to also be called 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.

Duraid Kashmula, the governor of Nineveh province of which Mosul is the capital, had told Reuters he was certain the detained man was Masri.

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, such as Mosul.

U.S. generals say Mosul is al Qaeda in Iraq's last remaining urban stronghold in the country.

However, U.S. commanders warn that the group, while significantly weakened, can still carry out large-scale attacks.

Al Qaeda in Iraq shares a name and ideology if not organisational ties with Osama bin Laden's network, which was blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

The U.S. military says al Qaeda in Iraq is largely foreign led but that its foot soldiers are mainly Iraqis.

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