US denies Iraqi reports al Qaeda leader dead

BAGHDAD - The US military and Iraqi government denied reports today that al Qaeda's leader in Iraq had been killed in a raid but said DNA tests would be conducted on bodies recovered after the attack to make sure.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, flew in to Baghdad amid the confusion on an unannounced mission to meet the national unity government she helped forge earlier this year but which is still struggling to curb sectarian violence.

Dismissing claims by several Iraqi politicians that Abu Ayyub al-Masri and several associates were killed in a US airstrike this week, US military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson said: "We believe he is still alive."

Masri, an Egyptian who is also known as Abu Hamza al- Muhajir, assumed the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq after Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi died in a US airstrike in June.

"There was a raid recently where we thought he may have been among those killed, but now we think it is highly unlikely," Johnson told Reuters. "We are going to rule out the possibility altogether by doing DNA tests."

Another US spokesman, Major General William Caldwell, told a news conference yesterday there was an occasion recently when troops briefly thought they had found Masri -- after the discovery near Baghdad of a video showing him wiring a car bomb.

A member of parliament close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Hasan al-Senaid, and a second source in the prime minister's office, who did not want to be named, said Masri and several supporters had been killed in a US strike on a "safe house" in Haditha in western Iraq.

But government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said initial forensic tests suggested Masri was not among the dead.

"It is not Masri, it is someone else. But we are going to do DNA tests to be very sure and we will get the final results in a few days," he said.

- REUTERS

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