By Megan Greenwell and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 19, 2007
BAGHDAD, July 18 -- 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-Qaeda in Iraq, the U.S. military said Wednesday.
Brig. Gen. Kevin J. 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-Qaeda and the group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. President Bush has long said that al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda operatives, is that there is a flow of strategic direction, of prioritization, of messaging and other guidance that comes from al-Qaeda senior leadership to the al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda in Iraq, which he said is led by foreigners. Bergner noted that the group's leader, Egyptian Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, also known as 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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda in Iraq.
Earlier this year, a onetime aide to Shiite politician Ahmed Chalabi identified Mashhadani as the pseudonymous al-Baghdadi and noted his tribal relationship to leading Sunni figures in the Iraqi government.
Nibras Kazimi, a visiting fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute and an adviser to Chalabi's de-Baathification commission, wrote on his Internet blog in early March that Mashhadani had embraced Salafism, the stringent line of Islam espoused by bin Laden, and had once been briefly imprisoned under Saddam Hussein.
Kazimi, whose Talisman Gate blog is widely read by Iraq experts and commentators in the United States, described Mashhadani as 5-foot-11, thin and in his early 40s. He said Mashhadani had four brothers -- one of whom was a senior enlisted soldier in Hussein's army -- and operated a Baghdad business "facilitating car registrations" until joining the Sunni insurgency following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Kazimi noted that both Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and ousted parliamentary speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani are from the same tribe as Khalid al-Mashhadani. Kazimi wrote that Mashhadani's name and the locations of some of the Islamic State of Iraq's headquarters in Baghdad were "revealed to the Iraqi government by other jihadist groups that have recently had a falling out with al-Qaeda."
The U.S. intelligence official confirmed that Mashhadani is 41 years old and is from Baghdad, but declined to comment on other Kazimi assertions. He said U.S. intelligence had played a "key role" in his capture.
[The U.S. military said Thursday that a roadside bomb killed four U.S. soldiers and their interpreter in East Baghdad on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.] On Wednesday, three roadside bombs killed at least 11 people in Baghdad, police said, and 24 bodies were found across the city. Those victims had been tortured and shot in the head, a police officer said. The U.S. military announced that roadside bombs had also killed three American soldiers and wounded four on Tuesday.
At least seven people were killed Wednesday in incidents in and around the capital, according to police. Mortar attacks in south Baghdad and nearby Zafaraniya killed five civilians, police said.
DeYoung reported from Washington. Special correspondent Dalya Hassan contributed to this report.