US: Top al-Qaida in Iraq figure captured

( AP ) - The U.S. command said Wednesday the highest-ranking Iraqi in the leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq has been arrested, adding that information from him indicates the group's foreign-based leadership wields considerable influence over the Iraqi chapter.

Khaled Abdul-Fattah Dawoud Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, also known as Abu Shahid, was captured in Mosul on July 4, said Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, a military spokesman.

"Al-Mashhadani is believed to be the most senior Iraqi in the al-Qaida in Iraq network," Bergner said. He said al-Mashhadani was a close associate of Abu Ayub al-Masri, the Egyptian-born head of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Bergner said al-Mashhadani served as an intermediary between al-Masri and Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri.

"In fact, communication between the senior al-Qaida leadership and al-Masri frequently went through al-Mashhadani," Bergner said.

"Along with al-Masri, al-Mashhadani co-founded a virtual organization in cyberspace called the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006," Bergner said. "The Islamic State of Iraq is the latest efforts by al-Qaida to market itself and its goal of imposing a Taliban-like state on the Iraqi people."

In Web postings, the Islamic State of Iraq has identified its leader as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, with al-Masri as minister of war. There are no known photos of al-Baghdadi.

Bergner said al-Mashhadani had told interrogators that al-Baghdadi is a "fictional role" created by al-Masri and that an actor is used for audio recordings of speeches posted on the Web.

"In his words, the Islamic State of Iraq is a front organization that masks the foreign influence and leadership within al-Qaida in Iraq in an attempt to put an Iraqi face on the leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq," Bergner said.

He said al-Mashhadani was a leader of the militant Ansar al-Sunnah group before joining al-Qaida in Iraq 2 1/2 years ago. Al-Mashhadani served as the al-Qaida media chief for Baghdad and then was appointed the media chief for the whole country.

Al-Qaida in Iraq was proclaimed in 2004 by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led a group called Tawhid and Jihad, responsible for the beheading of several foreign hostages, whose final moments were captured on videotapes provided to Arab television stations.

Al-Zarqawi posted Web statements declaring his allegiance to bin Laden and began using the name of al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Diyala province in June 2006 and was replaced by al-Masri.

The degree of control and supervision between bin Laden's clique and the Iraq branch has been the subject of debate, with some private analysts believing the foreign-based leadership plays a minor role in day to day operations.

However, the U.S. military has released captured letters from time to time, suggesting the foreign-based leaders provide at least broad direction.

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