The US military on Wednesday added new grist to the Bush administration's claims that the Al Qaeda that American forces are battling in Iraq is an extension of the group that was behind the 9/11 attacks.
At a press conference in Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner said the military had nabbed the seniormost Iraqi leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a man he said was the link between that outfit and Osama bin Laden.
The news appeared to further indicate a connection between Al Qaeda in Iraq and the global network, though many critics are skeptical. Analysts and some Iraqi officials say the groups share goals and ideology, but there is little evidence of tactical guidance from Mr. bin Laden or his colleagues.
"The Americans have been playing up the role of Al Qaeda in the context of the insurgency.... Al Qaeda is clearly an important segment in the counterinsurgency campaign, but it's not the only one. It may not be the biggest quantitative factor but qualitatively they are important," says Martin Navias, a counterterrorism expert at the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College in London.
Mr. Navias says there is a physical connection between "Al Qaeda central and Al Qaeda in Iraq."
He cites the letter sent by Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former Al Qaeda in Iraq leader, in 2005. That letter, he says, dealt with the goal to expel Americans from the country and to establish an Islamic state. Mr. Zarqawi was killed by US forces in June 2006.
The operational impact of the capture of Khaled Abdul-Fattah Dawoud Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, nabbed in Mosul on July 4, is unclear. Dozens of operatives described as senior Al Qaeda in Iraq officials have been killed by US or Iraqi forces in the past three years with little apparent long-term effects on the group's operations.
For example, on June 20, 2006, the spokesman for US-led multinational forces in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell (Bergner's predecessor), announced that US forces had killed another Mashhadani. Mansur Suleiman al-Mashhadani was killed in Yusifiyah, south of Baghdad.
"We do know that Sheikh Mansur was a key leader in Al Qaeda in Iraq with excellent religious, military, and leadership credentials within that organization," Caldwell told reporters. He described him as Zarqawi's right-hand man and a liaison between Al Qaeda and tribes in the restive area.
"We do think that his death will significantly continue to impact on the ability of this organization to regenerate and organize itself."
Caldwell said Sheikh Mansur was "multifunctional," with responsibilities including spiritual advice, recruitment, leadership, and media operations.
The latest Mashhadani captured is also described as involved in media operations. He carried messages from bin Laden and Mr. Zawahiri to the Egyptian-born head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayub al-Masri, said General Bergner. "Communication between the senior Al Qaeda leadership and al-Masri frequently went through al-Mashhadani," he said. "There is a clear connection between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda senior leadership outside Iraq."
The relationship between the two groups has been the subject of debate, with some analysts saying that the foreign-based leadership plays a minor role in day-to-day operations.
"Of course there's some communication back and forth, but as it's been described to me, Al Qaeda in Iraq operates as a franchise operation that's largely autonomous," says Evan Kohlmann, author of a book on Al Qaeda, who closely tracks the propaganda of the group and similar jihad organizations. "What Al Qaeda does for them is provide cross-pollination of ideas, but not command and control."
Mr. Kohlmann says that the group in Iraq has shown the ability to replace key leaders up until now, and doesn't expect that will change. On the question of whether this arrest has an impact on US or international security he said, "No, no impact at all" because Mashhadani would have been almost exclusively focused on operations inside Iraq.
News of Mashhadani's arrest came at a time when the US intelligence community has been warning that Al Qaeda has successfully regrouped and that its operational and training abilities are at their greatest height since 2001, creating fears that the organization is now able to carry out attacks in either the US or Europe.
Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, argues in a recent report on Iraq's Sunni insurgency that the direct links between Al Qaeda's foreign leadership and its network in Iraq are overstated.
He cites other US briefings that say 90 percent or more of the network's operatives are Iraqis and says the foreigners involved are not exclusively loyal to bin Laden.
"The foreign leadership listed has as many ties to the hard-line groups that have spun off [from] the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as to bin Laden per se," he writes. He also points out that most attacks in Iraq are not carried out by the group.
"None of this means that [the Islamic State of Iraq]-Al Qaeda does not play a critical role in the insurgency. Al Qaeda's attacks does make up a highly effective 15 percent and probably do the most damage in pushing Iraq toward civil war. It does mean that ISI-Al Qaeda's activities must be kept in careful perspective, and that it does not dominate the Sunni insurgency."
Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry says that Iraqi forces had nothing to do with the capture of Mashhadani. He says Iraqi military officials knew he was dangerous but did not know that he was as high-ranking as the Americans claim.
As for Al Qaeda's role in Iraq, General Khalaf says, "This organization has little influence in Iraq. It's falling apart. Their presence in Iraq is becoming negligible." He adds that "their connection to Osama bin Laden is by name only. They do not take instructions from bin Laden. They are just inspired by him."
"Since they are on the run, the communication between them and the Al Qaeda leadership outside is very difficult."
In Web postings, the Islamic State of Iraq has identified its leader as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, a name indicating Iraqi origin, with the Egyptian Mr. Masri as minister of war.
Bergner said Mashhadani had told interrogators that al-Baghdadi is a "fictional role" created by Masri and that an actor with an Iraqi accent is used for audio recordings of speeches posted on the Web.
"In his words, the Islamic State of Iraq is a front organization that masks the foreign influence and leadership within Al Qaeda in Iraq in an attempt to put an Iraqi face on the leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq," Bergner said.
• The Associated Press contributed to this report