The new head of Iraq’s Interior Ministry, which controls the nation’s intelligence and police forces, apparently “jumped the gun.” The government of Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki is under intense domestic and international pressure to deliver good news. The Shiite Interior Minister was feeling the heat and prematurely released information about a raid several miles north of Baghdad.
Shortly after sunset, Iraqi commandos surrounded a “safe house” believed to house Abu Ayuuab al-Masri, who heads al Qaeda in Iraq. He is Zarqawi’s successor and, many in the intelligence community believe, far more dangerous.
In an exchange of AK-47 fire, a number of insurgents were wounded and a man meeting the physical description of al-Masri was captured. He refused to give his name. When police tried to get his fingerprints, they discovered that all ten fingertips had been purposely singed. “He basically has no fingerprints,” a military intelligence official told me.
Based on his appearance alone, Iraqi officials at the scene became convinced that they had the al Qaeda leader. The officials at the Interior Ministry phoned Arab news outlets, which trumpeted the news. English-language wire services, such as Reuters, regularly monitor foreign broadcasts for news items. Within hours of the firefight at a desolate concrete house near Baghdad, the “news” had traveled the world. Meanwhile, the truth was trying to get its boots on. Apparently U.S. military intelligence first learned of al-Masri’s “capture” from reporters seeking comment.
U.S. intelligence officials demanded DNA tests to confirm the identity of the prisoner. U.S. has DNA reference samples of virtually all al Qaeda leaders, including al-Masri. Blood samples from family members are one source of such reference DNA samples.
A crestfallen intelligence official told Pajamas Media: The prisoner’s DNA did not match that of al Masri’s.
For now the al Qaeda leader remains at large. Arab radio reports that suggest that al Masri was wounded in the firefight are probably just a face saving attempt by the Interior Ministry to cover their latest media blunder.
Al Masri had ordered the evacuation of al Qaeda forces from Baghdad several weeks ago. Since then, U.S. military officials say they have seen a change in tactics from his new base somewhere in the Diyalla province, hard on the Iran border. Al Masri has ordered a stream of car bombs to attack targets in the besieged Iraqi capitol. He’s using car bombs like long range artillery, one military official told me.
Another change in tactics: al Qaeda has deployed a screen of antiaircraft weapons around Baghdad – in an attempt to cut off American and allied attempts at aerial reconnaissance.
Al Masri is trying to force troops into dangerous ground patrols where they can killed by roadside bombs or snipers.
Where are the antiaircraft weapons and the trained operators for them coming from? “We’re still debating that,” said one military official. “But all evidence points to Iran.”
UPDATE (Feb. 16): “The U.S. military on Friday cast doubt on a report from the Iraqi government that al Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Ayyub al-Masri was wounded in clashes with police.
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.
[…] Khalaf said Americans would not know about the details because only Iraqi police were involved. This was not a joint U.S.-Iraqi military engagement, Khalaf said.
Al-Masri is now on the run, he said.” (CNN)
Meanwhile, “An Iraqi army officer said Friday that an Al Qaeda in Iraq deputy has been jailed south of Baghdad, casting doubt on reports that he was killed and the group’s leader was wounded in clashes.” (AP)