- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

BAGHDAD — Iraqi officials have received reports that the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq was killed by Sunni tribesmen, but the chief government spokesman said today that the information has not been confirmed.

The statement by spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh followed a welter of reports from other Iraqi officials that Abu Ayyub Masri had been killed — either by rivals in al Qaeda or Sunni tribesmen who had turned against the extremists.

Iraqi officials have released similar reports in the past only to acknowledge later that they were inaccurate.

U.S. officials said they could not confirm the reported death. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told reporters that American authorities in Baghdad were seeking more information. An insurgent-linked Web site later denied Masri had been killed.

Iraqi government officials released conflicting accounts of when and where Masri purportedly was killed and who is supposed to have killed him.

It was also not clear whether Iraqi authorities had the body.

Mr. al-Dabbagh told Al Arabiya television that word of Masri’s purported death was based on “intelligence information,” and added that “DNA tests should be done and we have to bring someone to identify the body.”

He refused to say unequivocally whether Iraqi security forces have the body, citing security restrictions. Accounts were vague about when and where Masri supposedly died.

“We will make an official announcement when we confirm that this person is Abu Ayyub al-Masri,” he said. “The Iraqi government will work to identify him.”

The Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, told state television that authorities did not have absolute confirmation that Masri was dead but that reports indicated he was killed by fellow al Qaeda members in an ambush at the Safi bridge north of Baghdad.

“Sources of the Interior Ministry witnessed the killing of this criminal,” Gen. Khalaf said.

U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said the U.S. command was looking into the reports.

“Obviously, I hope it’s true,” Col. Garver said, pointing out that previous Iraqi claims had proved false. “We want to be very careful before we confirm or deny anything like that.”

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said Masri was believed to have been killed yesterday in the Taji area north of Baghdad.

“Preliminary reports said he was killed yesterday in Taji area in a battle involving a couple of insurgent groups, possibly some tribal people who have problems with al Qaeda. These reports have to be confirmed.”

Tribesmen in the western Anbar province have been fighting al Qaeda for weeks and claim to have killed dozens of them.

Masri, an Egyptian militant also known as Abu Hamza Muhajer, took over leadership of the terror network and was endorsed by Osama bin Laden after Abu Musab Zarqawi was killed last June in a U.S. air strike in Diyala province.

An insurgent-linked Web site later denied Masri has been killed” after “U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told reporters that American authorities in Baghdad were seeking more information.”

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