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U.S. Says Insurgent Leader It Couldn't Find Never Was

NY Times | July 19, 2007
MICHAEL R. GORDON

For more than a year, the leader of one the most notorious insurgent groups in Iraq was said to be a mysterious Iraqi called Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

As the titular head of the Islamic State in Iraq, Mr. Baghdadi issued incendiary pronouncements. Despite claims by an Iraqi Interior Ministry official in May that Mr. Baghdadi had been killed, he appeared to have persevered unscathed.

On Wednesday, the chief United States military spokesman here, Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, provided a new explanation for Mr. Baghdadi's ability to escape attack: he never existed.

General Bergner told reporters that a senior Iraqi insurgent captured this month said that the elusive Mr. Baghdadi was actually a fictional character whose declarations on audiotape were read by a man named Abu Abdullah al-Naima.

General Bergner said the ruse was devised by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the Egyptian-born leader of the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Although the group is mostly Iraqi, much of its leadership is foreign, and Mr. Masri was reportedly trying to mask the outsiders' dominant role.

The general's briefing was part of an American effort to counter the psychological aspects of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia's campaign as well as the military ones. The news conference seemed tailored to rattle the 90 percent of the group's adherents who are believed to be Iraqi by suggesting that they were doing the bidding of foreigners.

General Bergner said that Mr. Masri's ploy was to invent Mr. Baghdadi, a figure whose very name was meant to establish an Iraqi pedigree, install him as the head of a front organization called the Islamic State of Iraq, and then arrange for Mr. Masri to swear allegiance to him.

Adding to the deception, he said, the deputy leader in Osama bin Laden's group Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, publicly supported Mr. Baghdadi in a video and Internet statements.

The captured insurgent who was said to have alerted the Americans was identified as Khalid Abdul Fatah Daoud Mahmud al-Mashadani, who was said to have been detained by American forces in Mosul on July 4.

According to General Bergner, Mr. Mashadani is the most senior Iraqi operative in Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. According to some reports, he served in Saddam Hussein's Special Republican Guard and later became an insurgent with the group Ansar Al Sunna. About two and a half years ago, Mr. Mashadani joined Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, where he served as the Media Emir, or publicity director, the general said.

General Bergner said that Mr. Mashadani was also an intermediary between Mr. Masri in Iraq and Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri, whom the Bush administration says are remotely supporting and guiding Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Critics of the administration have accused it of exaggerating the relationship between the groups, however.

An important part of the American strategy against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has been to drive wedges between the group, other insurgent groups and the Sunni population, and General Bergner's briefing continued that theme.

“Mashadani confirms that al-Masri and the foreign leaders with whom he surrounds himself, not Iraqis, made the operational decisions,” General Bergner said.

As proof that Mr. Mashadani had been captured, the military displayed a picture of him and an identification card the general described as the false ID he was found with.

Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has fired its own shots in the publicity war. Videos have been issued under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq that were said to show a bomb attack in Diyala on an American Bradley armored vehicle and an assault on an Iraqi military checkpoint.

In one recent statement, the Islamic State of Iraq made light of the American code name for its offensive in Baquba, Arrowhead Ripper, by saying that “the arrows have been returned to the enemy like boomerangs,” according to the SITE Institute, a United States group that monitors international terrorist groups.

Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A official and Middle East expert, acknowledged that experts had long wondered whether Mr. Baghdadi actually existed. Still, Mr. Riedel suggested that the briefing on Wednesday may not be the final word.

“They say we have killed him,” Mr. Riedel said, referring to earlier statements by Iraqi government officials. “Then we heard him after his death, and now they are saying he never existed. That suggests that our intelligence on Al Qaeda in Iraq is not what we want it to be.”

Mr. Riedel said the military needed to guard against the possibility that Mr. Mashadani might be trying to protect a real person by telling the Americans that Mr. Baghdadi was imaginary. The military insists that Mr. Mashadani provided his account because he resented the role played by foreign leaders in Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. They say he has not repudiated the group.

A larger question is what influence senior Qaeda leaders, believed to be hiding in Pakistan, may have over the operations undertaken by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. General Bergner said Mr. bin Laden's group provided guidance and general support. By way of example, he said that three foreign fighters — Khail, Khalid and Khattab al-Turki — were dispatched to Iraq by Al Qaeda to help Mr. Masri strengthen his organization in the northern part of the country.

“There is a flow of strategic decision, of prioritization, of messaging from Al Qaeda senior leaders to Al Qaeda in Iraq leadership,” he said. But he did not provide any examples of a specific raid or operation that was ordered by Pakistan-based leaders of Al Qaeda.

An unclassified National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism made public in Washington on Tuesday indicated that there was some link between Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. But the intelligence estimates also suggest that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has some autonomy and described the Iraqi-based group as an “affiliate” of Al Qaeda.

A statement issued just last week in the name of a Mr. Baghdadi suggested that his group's enemies were varied and that some were much closer to home. A tape, posted on a jihadist Web site, warned Iran to stop supporting Iraqi's Shiites.

“We are giving the Persians, and especially the rulers of Iran, a two-month period to end all kinds of support for the Iraqi Shiite government and to stop direct and indirect intervention,” the statement read. “Otherwise, a severe war is waiting for you.”

 

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