Al-Qaeda in Iraq Leader May Be in Afghanistan

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 31, 2008

BAGHDAD, July 30 -- The leader of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq and several of his top lieutenants have recently left Iraq for Afghanistan, according to group leaders and Iraqi intelligence officials, a possible further sign of what Iraqi and U.S. officials call growing disarray and weakness in the organization.

U.S. officials say there are indications that al-Qaeda is diverting new recruits from going to Iraq, where its fighters have suffered dramatic setbacks, to going to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they appear to be making gains.

"We do believe al-Qaida is doing some measure of re-assessment regarding the continued viability of its fight in Iraq and whether Iraq should remain the focus of its efforts," Brig. Gen. Brian Keller, senior intelligence officer for Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, wrote in an e-mail. But Keller said that the reliability of indications that recruits have been diverted has "not yet been determined" and that U.S. officials have no evidence that top al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders have gone to Afghanistan.

A largely homegrown insurgent group that American officials believe is led by foreigners, al-Qaeda in Iraq has long been one of the most ruthless and dangerous organizations in the country. But even some of its leaders acknowledge that it has been seriously weakened over the past year.

The number of foreign fighters entering Iraq has dropped to 20 a month, down from about 110 a month last summer and as many as 50 a month earlier this year, according to a senior U.S. intelligence analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work.

Some al-Qaeda in Iraq members blamed the group's troubles on failed leadership by its head since 2006, an Egyptian who has used the pseudonyms Abu Hamza al-Muhajer and Abu Ayyub al-Masri. Some of the fighters said they have become so frustrated by Masri that they recently split off to form their own Sunni insurgent group.

Abdullah al-Ansari, an al-Qaeda in Iraq leader in Fallujah, said in an interview with a Washington Post special correspondent that Masri had traveled to Afghanistan through Iran and designated Abu Khalil al-Souri, the pseudonym of another top leader of the group who came to Iraq in 2003, to run the organization in his absence.

"It's not known yet whether he would come back or not," he said, referring to Masri.

Col. Hatim Abdullah, an Iraqi intelligence official in the Anbar province capital of Ramadi, said Masri and two foreign fighters were believed to have crossed into Iran on June 12 through the border town of Zorbatia. He said the information was based in part on interrogations of al-Qaeda in Iraq members.

One of those al-Qaeda in Iraq detainees, Abu Abeer al-Muhajer, a senior leader in Ramadi whose real name is believed to be Ibrahim Salih Hassan al-Fahdawi, said after his July 9 arrest that Masri had traveled through Iran with 15 leaders, according to a police report and an interview with police officer Nihad Jassim Mohammed Saleh, who has questioned Fahdawi.

Makki Fawaz al-Milehmi, a senior leader of the group north of Fallujah, said in an interview with the Post special correspondent that Masri has left Iraq twice before and was going to meet with "some of our brothers" in Afghanistan. "The rumors now are saying that he escaped and this is not true. He just traveled," said Milehmi, who accused the U.S. government of spreading the rumors to hurt the morale of the group. "He will come back to Iraq anytime he wants, like he has done before."

Masri "did not escape or turn his back to us or abandon al-Qaeda in Iraq," said Ali al-Qaisi, 32, the commander of a recruitment unit who lost a leg during a battle with U.S. troops in Samra. "We have been informed he left Iraq to Afghanistan for several things such as reviewing the situation of al-Qaeda in Iraq with [Osama] bin Laden."

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