U.S. military says it is 'highly unlikely' al-Qaida in Iraq leader killed in raid

Thursday, October 5th 2006, 12:58 pm
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ The U.S. military is performing DNA tests on a slain militant to determine if he is the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, but U.S. and Iraqi officials said Thursday it did not appear that Abu Ayyub al-Masri had been killed.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Baghdad, saying she will tell its leaders they have limited time to settle political differences spurring sectarian and insurgent violence.

``They don't have time for endless debate of these issues,'' Rice told reporters aboard her plane. ``They have really got to move forward. That is one of the messages that I'll take, but it will also be a message of support and what can we do to help.''

Reports that al-Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, had been killed surfaced after a raid Tuesday that killed four militants in the western Iraqi town of Haditha.

U.S. forces initially ``thought there was a possibility al-Masri was among them,'' Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said. But he said it did not appear the terrorist chief was killed.

``We have no reason to believe that we've killed al-Masri,'' Johnson told The Associated Press. ``We are doing DNA testing to completely eliminate the possibility that this would be al-Masri, but we do not believe it is.''

The statement came four days after Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, said U.S. and Iraqi forces were closing in on al-Masri.

But chief U.S. military spokesman Maj. William B. Caldwell was more skeptical on Wednesday.

``I'd love to tell you we're going to get him tonight,'' he said. ``But, obviously, that's a very key, critical target for all of us operating here in Iraq. ... We feel very comfortable that we're continuing to move forward very deliberately in an effort to find him and kill or capture him.''

Caldwell said a driver for al-Masri had been captured in a Sept. 28 raid in Baghdad, the second figure close to the al-Qaida in Iraq chief to be captured that month.

``We're obviously gleaning some key critical information from those individuals and others that have been picked up,'' he said, adding that 110 al-Qaida suspects were killed and 520 detained in September.

Johnson would not say what kind of a DNA sample existed that tests of the body might be compared to, but said ``we're confident we will be make a positive I.D., or not, when the time comes.''

The process ``can take weeks to resolve,'' Johnson said.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh and Defense Ministry spokesman Qassim al-Moussawi expressed even more certainty that the dead man was not al-Masri.

``The body belonged to someone else,'' said al-Dabbagh, without identifying the slain militant. ``The DNA check will be completed'' to make sure, he said.

Al-Masri, whose pseudonym means ``the Egyptian,'' is believed to have taken over al-Qaida in Iraq after Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed June 7 in a U.S. airstrike.

Iraqi intelligence knows the militant's real name and has samples of his fingerprints for comparison, said al-Moussawi, who refused to give the real name.

U.S. officials said al-Masri joined an extremist group led by al-Qaida's No. 2 official Ayman al-Zawahri in 1982. He joined al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan in 1999 and trained as a car bombing expert before traveling to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Meanwhile, a video claiming to show two U.S. soldiers being shot by an insurgent sniper in Iraq _ apparently tampered with to change the images _ was posted on the Internet on Thursday by an al-Qaida-linked group.

The video was posted by the Mujahedeen Shura Council _ an umbrella organization of insurgent groups, including al-Qaida in Iraq _ on an Islamic Web site known to be a clearing house for al-Qaida material.

U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said he could not comment on the authenticity of the video, which was being analyzed.

In violence Thursday, a car bomb exploded in the mainly Shiite neighborhood of Hurriyah in Baghdad, killing two people and wounding two, police 1st Lt. Thaer Mahmoud said.

Another bomb struck a group of laborers waiting for work at a downtown square in the capital, killing two and wounding 26, Mahmoud said.

The province of Diyala, an increasingly violent region north of Baghdad, saw a string of attacks early Thursday. Bombings and shooting in and around the province's capital Baqouba left seven dead. Iraqi officials have warned of increasing al-Qaida presence in Diyala.

Baghdad has been torn by escalating violence in recent weeks, a deadly combination of Sunni insurgent attacks and sectarian killings between Shiites and Sunnis. At least 21 U.S. soldiers have been killed since Saturday, most in Baghdad amid a massive security sweep by American and Iraqi forces that has been going on since August.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed in comments to Iraqi state TV that the country is in the final stage of ``confronting the security challenge'' and that security would be achieved ``within the two or three months to come.''

Al-Maliki is under pressure to find an end to the sectarian killings that have torn Iraq apart for months despite the government's calls for militias _ many of which have ties to parties in the government _ to put down their arms.

``The dissolution of militia must be through the political powers. There is more than one way leading to a solution, and the militias will dissolve themselves,'' al-Maliki told the AP during an ``iftar'' dinner, the meal that ends the daily Ramadan fast.

Caldwell also said the number of car bombs and roadside bombs that went off or had been found and defused in the past week was the highest this year. He declined to give firm numbers, but said, ``The trend line has been up over the last couple of months.''

Amid the escalating violence, Iraqi authorities pulled a brigade of about 700 policemen out of service in its biggest move ever to uproot troops linked to death squads, aiming to signal the government's seriousness in cleansing Baghdad of sectarian violence.

It was the first time the Iraqi government has taken such dramatic action to discipline security forces over possible links to militiamen, though some individual soldiers have been investigated in the past.

Sunnis widely fear the Shiite-led police, especially in Baghdad, accusing them of cooperating with death squads who snatch Sunnis and kill them.

The brigade was responsible for a region of northeast Baghdad with a slight Shiite majority, where gunmen on Sunday kidnapped 24 workers from a frozen food factory. Hours later, the bodies of seven of the workers were found dumped in a district miles away.

Sunni politicians have said all those who were kidnapped were members of the minority sect. They blamed Shiite militias for the abduction and accused police of letting the gunmen escape and move freely with their captives.

Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the chief spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, said the brigade was being investigated because it ``didn't respond quickly'' to the kidnapping.

Caldwell said the police brigade in the area had been ordered to stand down and was undergoing retraining. He said some troops were being investigated and that any found to have militia ties would be removed.

``There is clear evidence that there was some complicity in allowing death squad elements to move freely when, in fact, they were supposed to have been impeding their movement,'' Caldwell said at a news conference.