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Captive links bin Laden to Iraqis, U.S. says

BAGHDAD – The man responsible for ferrying messages between Osama bin Laden and Iraqi insurgents is in U.S. custody and is providing “significant insights” into the workings of al-Qaida in Iraq, the U.S. military said Wednesday.

Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the top American military spokesman in Iraq, said the July 4 capture of Khalid al-Mashhadani has yielded evidence of the relationship between bin Laden’s al-Qaida and the group known as al-Qaida in Iraq.

President Bush has long said that al-Qaida and the Iraqi group that shares its name are one and the same, an assertion that U.S. intelligence officials say is an oversimplification.

“What we’ve learned from not just the capture of Mashhadani, but from other al-Qaida operatives, is that there is a flow of strategic direction, of prioritization, of messaging and other guidance that comes from al-Qaida senior leadership to the al-Qaida in Iraq leadership,” Bergner said.

Officials in Washington said the announcement of Mashhadani’s capture, two weeks after it occurred, was unrelated to White House efforts this week to emphasize tight links between al-Qaida in Iraq and the organization headed by bin Laden. In the wake of recent U.S. intelligence assessments depicting a resurgent bin Laden and a worsening of the global terrorist threat, war critics have charged that the administration’s focus on Iraq over the past four years has allowed al-Qaida to grow and endanger U.S. security.

“Keep in mind that it takes some time to identify precisely who an individual is and that there are times when you don’t want others to know that someone is in custody,” one U.S. intelligence official said of the timing.

Speaking to reporters in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, Bergner said military officials believe Mashhadani was the top Iraqi working for al-Qaida in Iraq, which he said is led by foreigners. Bergner noted that the group’s leader, Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and other senior figures are from other countries, although intelligence analysts estimate that as much as 95 percent of the group is Iraqi.

“Mashhadani confirms that al-Masri and the foreign leaders with whom he surrounds himself, not Iraqis, make the operational decisions” for al-Qaida in Iraq, Bergner said.

Bergner said that Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, described in insurgent statements as leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, was a fictional creation of Masri. He called the Islamic State, announced by al-Qaida affiliates last year in what intelligence analysts described as a ploy to draw more Iraqis to their cause, a “virtual organization in cyberspace.”

Following its establishment, the al-Qaida name disappeared from statements emanating from Iraq. But while some other insurgent groups declared themselves part of the Islamic State, others denounced it – as did U.S. intelligence – as nothing more than a front for al-Qaida in Iraq.

“The rank and file Iraqis in AQI believe they are following the Iraqi al-Baghdadi. But all the while they have been following the orders of the Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri,” Bergner said, using the military’s abbreviation for al-Qaida in Iraq.