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Thursday, October 05, 2006

U.S. denies Iraqi reports al Qaeda leader dead

The U.S. military and Iraqi government denied reports on Thursday that al Qaeda's leader in Iraq had been killed in a raid but said DNA tests would be conducted on bodies recovered after the attack to make sure.

Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, flew in to Baghdad amid the confusion on an unannounced mission to meet the national unity government she helped forge earlier this year but which is still struggling to curb sectarian violence.

Dismissing claims by several Iraqi politicians that Abu Ayyub al-Masri and several associates were killed in a U.S. airstrike this week, U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson said: "We believe he is still alive."

Masri, an Egyptian who is also known as Abu Hamza al- Muhajir, assumed the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq after Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi died in a U.S. airstrike in June.

"There was a raid recently where we thought he may have been among those killed, but now we think it is highly unlikely," Johnson told Reuters. "We are going to rule out the possibility altogether by doing DNA tests."

Another U.S. spokesman, Major General William Caldwell, told a news conference on Wednesday there was an occasion recently when troops briefly thought they had found Masri -- after the discovery near Baghdad of a video showing him wiring a car bomb.

A member of parliament close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Hasan al-Senaid, and a second source in the prime minister's office, who did not want to be named, said Masri and several supporters had been killed in a U.S. strike on a "safe house" in Haditha in western Iraq.

But government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said initial forensic tests suggested Masri was not among the dead.

"It is not Masri, it is someone else. But we are going to do DNA tests to be very sure and we will get the final results in a few days," he said.

Maliki's government is under mounting pressure, especially from Washington, to show progress in ending insurgent and sectarian violence that has killed thousands.


Rice, whose last visit to Baghdad in April was credited with pressuring Iraqi leaders form the national unity coalition under Maliki, seems likely to discuss its progress -- or lack of it -- in curbing violence by rival Sunni and Shi'ite groups in Baghdad that is killing hundreds of people a week.

Her visit, during a tour of the Middle East, will focus new attention on Iraq in the United States at a time when President George W. Bush's administration is on the defensive over the war in campaigning for next month's congressional elections.

Earlier this month Iraq's National Security Adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, said Masri's "days are numbered" after U.S. and Iraqi forces announced the capture of his deputy and the killing of a close aide.

"We are trying to get closer to him every day and we believe we are doing so," Johnson said, declining to give details of the raid in which the suspected militants were killed.

Caldwell said on Wednesday Iraqi and U.S. forces had killed more than 110 al Qaeda militants in September and detained more than 520, among them Masri's former driver, a suspect in the bombing of the Sheraton and Al Hamra hotels in 2005 that killed 16 people.

Al Qaeda makes up about 5 percent of Iraq's Sunni Arab insurgency. Its suicide bombers have caused some of the worst bloodshed, but U.S. officials say Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian violence now kills many more Iraqi civilians.

The U.S. military says U.S. and Iraqi forces have arrested or killed hundreds of al Qaeda militants since the death of Zarqawi.

But despite these successes, bombings and other attacks on Shi'ite civilians blamed on al Qaeda continue and Caldwell said bombings in Baghdad were at an "all-time high."

The Baghdad morgue said on Thursday it had received 1,440 bodies in September, 85 percent of them victims of violence. This was a drop on the 1,550 it reported in August and the 1,815 in July.

The United Nations, which adds numbers on hospital deaths from the Health Ministry to the numbers of unidentified bodies in the Baghdad morgue, has said 6,599 Iraqis were killed in July and August, 700 more than in the previous two months.

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