BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A senior operative for al Qaeda in Iraq who was caught this month has told his U.S. military interrogators a prominent al Qaeda-led group is just a front and its leader fictitious, a military spokesman said on Wednesday.
A briefing slide released by the Multi-National Force – Iraq on July 18, 2007. The organizational chart includes a white box representing the position of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq, which was purportedly set up last year.
Brigadier-General Kevin Bergner told a news conference that Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq, which was purportedly set up last year, did not exist.
The Islamic State of Iraq was established to try to put an Iraqi face on what is a foreign-driven network, Bergner said. The name Baghdadi means the person hails from the Iraqi capital.
April 20, 2010
Two sets of figures are in dispute in Iraq: the tally of votes in last month’s election, and the number of times Abu Omar al-Baghdadi has died. On Monday, a court called for a recount of about two and a half million ballots—a good thing for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who wants to stay in office even though his coalition came in second—and American and Iraqi officials said that al-Baghdadi, described as the leader of a group that includes Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, had been killed in a joint military operation. Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian who was Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s military leader, and two other men were also reported killed. Maliki treated the news as a personal victory, holding their pictures up at his press conference. But there was a complication. From the Times:
The arrest or death of Mr. Baghdadi, the insurgent fighter, has been reported so many times that it has become a macabre joke about the murkiness of Iraq’s security and government credibility.
In 2007 the government announced that he had been arrested, and another time that he had been killed. Almost exactly a year ago Mr. Maliki announced that Mr. Baghdadi had been arrested again. Iraq’s interior minister also reported the death of Mr. Masri in 2007.
It was a bit different this time, in that U.S. officials confirmed the death reports, as they hadn’t before. But the better question might be how many times al-Baghdadi has been born. The Times noted that al-Baghdadi was “once said to be fictional”—and the ones doing the saying were not conspiracy theorists but American officials (there is a difference). There was speculation that al-Baghdadi was a name picked up and passed around by several different people, like Green Lantern (except not a good guy). Back on July 19, 2007, the Times wrote that Brigadier General Kevin Bergner said that al-Baghdadi was a “ruse,” a fake Iraqi everyman invented by foreign Al Qaeda fighters to “mask the outsiders’ dominant role.” The one who dreamed him up, according to Bergner, was al-Masri—the other man killed Sunday. The Times headline back then:
U.S. Says Insurgent Leader It Couldn’t Find Never Was
Except now American officials say he was someone–a man named Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi. One general told the A.P. that the military had determined his identity with “extreme confidence.” Another, General Ray Odierno, said that killing al-Baghdadi and al-Masri was “potentially the most significant blow to Al Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency,” which is nice to hear, however familiar the refrain may be at this point. Joe Biden said it was “potentially devastating.” And the Washington Post said that, if nothing else,
Monday’s announcement appeared to put to rest the debate over whether Baghdadi was a fictional character, a real person or a composite.
Perhaps it does put it to rest, but one can be forgiven for being confused. The logic here, as with so many things in Iraq, is a bit vague. The A.P. reported that the identities of the dead men were confirmed by DNA tests and fingerprints. Did the tests prove that Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi was himself, or that he was al-Baghdadi? Was there some point in the fictional life of al-Baghdadi that that al-Zawi became him—stepping into an avatar, one might say—and did that make al-Baghdadi real? (Or the opposite: according to the Christian Science Monitor, Maliki said at his press conference that al-Zawi was the “original” al-Baghdadi, suggesting that while we’ve taken care of Sean Connery we may still have Roger Moore, Daniel Craig, and those other guys to contend with.) It may all be very definitive, but some step is missing here. Dead men and phantoms and golems are all different things.
Perhaps more disconcerting: if our military and intelligence sources are correct now, and al-Baghdadi was a real threat who has been eliminated, how could they have been so wrong two and a half years ago, when they said he was no more than a comic-book villain—a propaganda device? After seven years in Iraq, it would be helpful if we could tell the difference.