BAGHDAD, Iraq – The leader of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq, who is known by the alias Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was injured in a clash with Iraqi police Thursday night, a spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry said.
One of al-Masri’s deputies, Abu Abdullah al-Mujamie, was killed in the gunfight, which occurred at approximately 11 p.m. near Samarra, ministry spokesman Abdul Kareem al-Kinany said.
U.S. officials have said that al-Masri took over the leadership of the insurgent group following the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by U.S. forces in a June 2006 airstrike. In December, Iraqi officials said security forces had killed another aide to al-Masri, whom officials describe as a longtime associate of Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
A senior al-Qaida in Iraq leader, Abu Amar al-Dulaimi, confirmed the death of al-Mujamie, whom he described as al-Masri’s “personal escort,” but questioned whether al-Masri was even in the area. “We don’t know if (Masri) was with him or not, or if he was wounded or not,” al-Dulaimi said Thursday night in a phone interview.
Al-Kinany, the ministry spokesman, said Iraqi forces conducted the operation “without U.S. intervention,” but al-Dulaimi said people in the area reported seeing helicopters and fighter planes roaming the sky afterward, a possible indication of a U.S. role in the clash.
Questions about al-Sadr
Also Thursday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has ordered his top deputies to leave Iraq in order to ease the implementation of the Baghdad security plan, which U.S. and Iraqi forces began to roll out this week.
Al-Sadr, the leader of the powerful Mahdi Army militia, recently went to Iran, according to U.S. officials.
During a news conference Thursday night, Talabani said al-Sadr told government officials that he is “eager for the stability of the state and the success of the security plan. He gave the government the green light to detain any outlaws.”
In Washington on Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he believes al-Sadr’s followers are concerned about the new operation to secure Baghdad and suggested that al-Sadr and his militia will “go to ground” over the coming months. “And the question is, during that space … can we and the Iraqis provide enough security so that economic development, improvements in governance, political reconciliation can all begin to make real progress in Iraq?” Gates said.
Gates said it was “an assumption” that al-Sadr has gone to Iran. “I haven’t seen any factual proof of it at this point, but that’s what people – that’s what I hear people think,” Gates said.
In recent days some of al-Sadr’s aides in Iraq have denied that Sadr has left the country.