BAGHDAD – The shadowy leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida-inspired group that challenged the authority of Iraq’s government, was captured Friday in a raid on the western outskirts of Baghdad, an Iraqi military spokesman said.
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was arrested along with several other insurgents in a raid in the town of Abu Ghraib, said Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for the Baghdad security operation.
U.S. officials had no confirmation of the capture and said they were looking into the report.
Al-Moussawi said al-Baghdadi admitted his identity, as did another “of the terrorists” who confirmed “that the one in our hands is al-Baghdadi.”
The arrest of al-Baghdadi would be a major victory for U.S. and Iraqi forces in their fight against Sunni insurgents, especially the hardcore religious extremists who have shown no interest in negotiating an end to their struggle.
But some analysts have pointed out that the al-Qaida-linked extremists rebounded following the death last June of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the charismatic al-Qaida in Iraq leader who died in a U.S. airstrike in Diyala province.
The self-styled Islamic State of Iraq was proclaimed in October, when a militant network that includes al-Qaida in Iraq announced in a video that it had established an Islamic state in six provinces including Baghdad that have large Sunni populations, along with parts of two other central provinces that are predominantly Shiite.
Unlike al-Zarqawi, virtually nothing is known of al-Baghdadi, including his real name. It is widely assumed that the name al-Baghdadi was taken as part of a campaign to make al-Qaida appear more of a homegrown Iraqi movement rather than an organization dominated by foreigners.
In a tape released last November, al-Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, called on Sunni Muslims to pledge their allegiance to this new state and said al-Baghdadi was “the ruler of believers” with al-Qaida in Iraq fighters under his command.
Since then, the trappings of an Islamic shadow state with al-Qaida as its base has been taking shape in some towns and cities of Anbar province where a government presence hardly exists, according to Sunni residents.