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IRAQ: Al Qaeda in Iraq leader arrested -- not

May 9, 2008 |  7:41 am

Will the real Abu Hamza al-Muhajir please stand up? No, not the one detained Thursday near the northern city of Mosul who convinced Iraqi officials that Abu Hamza al-Muhajir is his name. It's another Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, who heads the Sunni Muslim insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq, who U.S. and Iraqi officials want. Masri_2

For a few hours late Thursday and early today, it seemed the Al Qaeda in Iraq chief might actually be in custody. The Defense Ministry spokesman, Mohammed Askari, was convinced enough that he announced al-Muhajir's arrest and said he had been assured by security officials in the Mosul region that they had their man.

But U.S. military officials, who would be thrilled to announce such a catch, insisted they could not confirm the arrest.

Confusing matters was that al-Muhajir is commonly known as Abu Ayyub Masri, and that the U.S. military had announced some high-profile detentions in Mosul in previous days without identifying them by name. Could one of them be the elusive Masri? No, said Maj. Brad Leighton, a U.S. military spokesman who mans the overnight press desk and whose phones lit up after Iraqi TV ran the first report of the arrest. Leighton assured reporters that if the AQI leader's arrest could be confirmed, he'd let them know.

That didn't happen, and by today, Askari was forced to admit he was wrong. Askari told the Associated Press news agency that the commander of Iraqi security forces in Ninevah province, where Mosul is located, was certain he had the right al-Muhajir.

"We called the commander of Ninevah operations 10 times and every time he insisted it was Abu Hamza al-Muhajir because when they caught him, they asked him whether his name was Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and he said yes," the Associated Press quoted Askari as saying.

This isn't the first time confusion has surrounded the reported arrest or death of a high-ranking AQI leader. Masri has been reported arrested or killed in the past, each time by Iraqi officials who corrected themselves later. But the reports about Masri pale in comparison to those involving a fellow alleged terror leader, Abu Omar Baghdadi, who was said to be the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq insurgency group.

In March 2007, Iraqi officials declared him captured but were forced to admit it was another man. Two months later, the government declared Baghdadi dead, and it even showed his purported corpse on state-run TV.  U.S. officials suggested the Iraqis had confused another slain suspect with Baghdadi, and at a news conference, they declared that Baghdadi did not even exist.

In reality, they said Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization encompassing AQI and other Sunni insurgent groups, had created the Baghdadi character to give an Iraqi face to a foreign-run organization.

Askari rejected the claim but has yet to produce the real Baghdadi.

Masri, meanwhile, has a $5-million price on his head.  The U.S. military has identified him as an Egyptian-born bomb expert who took the place of Abu Musab Zarqawi as the head of AQI in June 2006, following Zarqawi's death in a U.S. air strike. He is said to be a disciple of Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, who made his way to Iraq from Afghanistan after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

—Tina Susman in Baghdad

Photo: U.S. Department of State

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, the war in Iraq and the frictions between the West and Islam. You can subscribe by registering at the website here, logging in here and clicking on the World: Mideast newsletter box here.

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