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IRAQ: Abu Omar Baghdadi speaks?

May 13, 2009 | 12:52 pm

The mystery surrounding the identity of a top terrorist suspect recently detained by Iraqi forces has deepened with the release of a potentially embarrassing audiotape purporting to be from Abu Omar  Baghdadi stating that the detainee isn't him.

Baghdadi is the alleged leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group created to unify Al Qaeda-affiliated factions in Iraq, and his capture would be a very big deal indeed – if it turns out to be true.

Iraq today stood by its claim that the man its forces arrested in an elaborate sting operation on April 23 is Baghdadi. Iraq's defense minister, Abdul-Qader Obeidi, appeared before a parliamentary committee and told lawmakers that there was no doubt about Baghdadi's identity. He said the audiotaped message was delivered by someone else, offering evidence of a power struggle underway among the militants over who would replace Baghdadi.

But on the tape, posted on a jihadi website, the man claiming to be Baghdadi insists he remains free.

"Everyone was surprised by the lies of the rulers of the Baathist palaces in the Green Zone claiming again that they have arrested me," says the voice. "I thought they would realize it … but they kept spreading the news until they believed their own lie."

As for a photograph released by the Iraqis of the captured man, "we don't know where they got it from and we don't know who that guy is," the voice says.

Though it was impossible to say with certainty whether it was Baghdadi speaking, Rita Katz, director of the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist websites, told the Associated Press that the voice appeared to be the same as that of the person who has identified himself as Baghdadi in the past.

As if to affirm his identity, the man also throws in a few sectarian insults of the kind that have characterized Baghdadi's previous statements. Shiites (i.e. the government) are liars, while Sunnis (i.e. himself) speak the truth, he says.

"You Sunni people, Rafidhis are your enemies….don't trust them and be careful not to be deceived by their soft words," he says, using a slur word for Shiites.

There is already widespread skepticism whether the man in custody is really Baghdadi – which is itself a nom-de-guerre indicating only that the man is from Baghdad.

The Iraqi government has on several occasions in the past announced his capture only to be proved wrong later.  In one instance, in 2007, the Iraqis announced that they had killed Baghdadi, only for the U.S. military to reveal that the dead man was another militant slain by U.S. forces a few days earlier, whose corpse was "captured" by Iraqi soldiers on its way to funeral services.

The U.S. military has been denied access to the man in custody and has therefore been unable to determine whether he might indeed be Baghdadi, U.S. officials say.

But the U.S. military has also said in the past that it is not sure Baghdadi actually exists. In 2007 a military spokesman said the voice purporting to be that of Baghdadi in fact belonged to an actor, and that Baghdadi was a fictitious character created to give the foreign jihadi operations of Al Qaeda an Iraqi face.

The man the Americans most want to capture is Abu Hamza Masri, the Egyptian who is alleged to have replaced Abu Musab Zarqawi as the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. He surfaced recently to threaten in an audiotape a new campaign of violence called "Good Harvest" – a threat that appears to have been made good with a wave of bombings in April that killed hundreds of Iraqis.


-- Liz Sly in Baghdad

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