In March, he was declared captured. In May, he was declared killed, and his purported corpse was displayed on state-run TV. But on Wednesday, Abu Omar Baghdadi, the supposed leader of an Al Qaeda-affiliated group in Iraq, was declared nonexistent by U.S. military officials, who said he was a fictional character created to give an Iraqi face to a foreign-run terrorist organization.
An Iraqi actor has been used to read statements attributed to Baghdadi, who since October has been identified as the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq group, said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner.
Bergner said the new information came from a man captured July 4, described as the highest-ranking Iraqi within the Islamic State of Iraq.
He said the detainee, identified as Khalid Abdul Fatah Daud Mahmoud Mashadani, has served as a propaganda chief in the organization, a Sunni Muslim insurgent group that swears allegiance to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda.
According to Bergner, Mashadani helped create Islamic State of Iraq as a "virtual organization" that exists in cyberspace and is essentially a pseudonym for Al Qaeda in Iraq, another group that claims ties to Bin Laden. The front organization was aimed at making Iraqis believe that Al Qaeda in Iraq is a nationalistic group, even though it is led by an Egyptian and has few Iraqis among its leaders, Bergner said at a news conference.
"The Islamic State of Iraq is the latest effort by Al Qaeda to market itself and its goal of imposing a Taliban-like state on the Iraqi people," Bergner said.
Islamic State of Iraq has been widely described as an umbrella organization of several insurgent groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq.
There was no way to confirm the military's claim, which comes at a time of heightened pressure on the White House to justify keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. Critics of the Bush administration say the president has been trying to do so by linking Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network to the conflict in Iraq, even though the organization had no substantial presence here until after the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003.
"The same people that attacked us on September the 11th is the crowd that is now bombing people" in Iraq, Bush said Tuesday.
The U.S. military's announcement Wednesday was the latest bizarre twist surrounding the figure known as Baghdadi. If the Iraqi government's reaction was anything to go by, it won't be the last.
Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed Askari rejected the U.S. assertion, insisting that Baghdadi is real. "Al-Baghdadi is wanted and pursued. We know many things about him, and we even have his picture," Askari said. However, he said he could not release a photograph or additional information because it could jeopardize attempts to capture Baghdadi.
The man known as Baghdadi emerged last year when Islamic State of Iraq was formed after the slaying of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
In March, the Iraqi government announced it had captured him, but then said that it was someone else. In May, confusion reigned when both Iraqi and U.S. officials announced the death of a high-ranking Islamic State of Iraq member. Iraqis identified the man as Baghdadi and showed a body they said was his on television.
The Americans said it was someone else and they had the DNA to prove it. The Iraqis countered by insisting it was the same man, but dropped the matter.
At that time, U.S. officials hinted that they had doubts about Baghdadi's existence.
At Wednesday's news conference, Bergner said Islamic State detainee Mashadani had grown disenchanted with the group's foreign leadership, which has faced opposition from Iraqi Sunni Muslim groups that oppose the U.S. occupation and fear non-Iraqis' attempts to take over the insurgency. One of those groups is Ansar al Sunna, of which Mashadani was a leader, Bergner said, before assuming his latest role 2 1/2 years ago.
Navy Rear Adm. Greg Smith said U.S. officials had long suspected that Islamic State was a facade. "We sort of knew, but now we actually have the individual who was the co-founder," he said.
He described Mashadani, whose photograph showed an unremarkable looking man with a receding hairline, as disenchanted with the foreign influence on the group. He and others "believe the foreigners are ruining and taking down" the organization and that it is becoming "very violent against average Iraqis," Smith said. "He's pretty much a believer in Al Qaeda, but he does not believe the foreign influence is a productive way to conduct business."
Iraqi official Askari said the Americans were being duped by Mashadani and that Baghdadi was the leader of a nationalistic faction of Islamic State of Iraq dominated by former Baathist Party members loyal to Saddam Hussein. It is different from the faction headed by foreigners but just as lethal, Askari said.
"Two factions: the outsiders' Qaeda and the insiders' Qaeda," he said.
Neither Bergner nor Smith offered specifics of what they said was foreign Al Qaeda leaders' involvement in Iraq's violence. But they said Al Qaedaaffiliated groups, not Shiite Muslim militias, were the No. 1 threat to Iraq and hoped to fuel sectarian violence with bombings.
They also had few details about the actor they said portrays Baghdadi in videos, saying only that he is an elderly Iraqi man whose name is Abu Abdullah Naima.
The announcement was the latest in a series of statements from U.S. officials here blaming foreign elements for Iraq's violence. They accuse Iran of providing weapons and training to Shiite militias and Sunni extremists, and say Al Qaeda-linked groups are pouring foreign fighters into the country. Earlier, the U.S. had said Iraq's Shiite militias were the biggest problem facing security forces.
Times staff writer Saif Hameed contributed to this report.