US officials are casting doubt on a report that Al Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Ayyub al-Masri was injured in a confrontation with Iraqi police. CNN, however, reports that Iraqi authorities are standing by their intitial story.
A senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity, told CNN that the U.S. military believes reports about the alleged incident Thursday are false.
Despite the doubts, Iraq's Interior Ministry stood by its initial report that police wounded al-Masri — who is the successor to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, said ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf.
Reuters reports that the anonymous comments were also confirmed by a US military spokesman.
"We are pretty confident that Masri was not killed or wounded. In fact, we believe that Masri was not even involved in any kind of gun battle yesterday," Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman, said.
The Associated Press reports that the Iraqis are now changing one element of their original statement. It was first reported that senior aide to Al Mazri had been killed during the clash. But an Iraqi Army officer said Friday the aide is still alive.
The Iraqi army officer said the Al Qaeda in Iraq deputy, identified as Abu Abdullah al-Majemaai, had been detained on Feb. 9 and remained in custody in a jail near Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad. The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the information, said he could not comment on al-Masri's whereabouts.
The BBC reports that little is known about Mr. Mazri. He is believed to be an Egyptian, and was trained in Afghanistan. He helped Mr. Zarqawi form the first Al Qaeda cell in Iraq, and then took over leadership after Zarqawi was killed by US troops in 2006.
This is the second time that authorities have reported an incident with Mazri. Six months ago US forces reported he had been killed in a clash with troops, only to retract the statement when it turned out to be false. There is a $5 million reward for his capture.
Meanwhile, another key figure in Iraq is also making news. Reuters reports that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani says radical Shiite Muslim cleric cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has ordered all the heads of his Mahdi Army militia to leave Iraq. There are conflicting reports that Mr. Sadr left the country himself last week and is now in Iran.
Reuters says the US considers the Mahdi Army the greatest threat to Iraqi security. The departure of the miltia heads may be one of the reasons for a dramatic "overnight" drop in deaths in Baghdad. AP reports that only 10 bodies had been reported by the Baghdad morgue Friday, compared to recent averages of 4-50 bodies a day.