BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Thursday it had killed a top al Qaeda operative in Iraq whom it accused of involvement in the kidnapping of American journalist Jill Carroll, peace activist Tom Fox and other foreigners.
U.S. military spokesman Major-General William Caldwell said Muharib Abdul Latif al-Jubouri was the “senior minister of information” for al Qaeda in Iraq.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier-General Abdul-Kareem Khalaf said Jubouri was also Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the leader of the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq, a Qaeda-led group which has claimed many major attacks in the country.
But a statement from the group, posted on a Web site used by insurgents, said they were two different men and that Baghdadi was still alive. Jubouri, whom the group identified as its spokesman, was killed in an air raid after a clash lasting eight hours, it said.
Caldwell told a news conference that Jubouri was killed north of Baghdad on Tuesday, as part of an offensive against al Qaeda called “Operation Rat Trap”.
“When we can pick up someone like that who has that kind of history in being associated with the kidnapping and killing of foreign nationals in this country, that’s significant,” he said.
Carroll, a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor newspaper, was abducted in January 2006 and held for 82 days before she was released. Fox was kidnapped in November 2005 and his body was found in March 2006.
The Christian Science Monitor said on Thursday Carroll did not recognize the photograph of Jubouri released by the U.S. military, but said she thought it might be of a kidnapper “who she had taken to be a low-status guard”.
Caldwell said Jubouri had also been involved in the kidnapping of two Germans, whom he did not identify but said they were captured in 2006.
He said the U.S. military did not know who Baghdadi was, but added the demise of Jubouri — whose body he said was identified by DNA tests — might have contributed to confusion over which top al Qaeda figure was killed in Iraq this week.
Iraqi state television earlier broadcast images of the body of a man it identified as Baghdadi. The body lay inside a wooden coffin in a truck, its head badly swollen and bruised.
Iraqi officials said Baghdadi was killed by Iraqi and U.S. forces north of the capital. They have also said Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, was killed in a battle between insurgents north of Baghdad, also this week.
Caldwell said the U.S. military knew Jubouri was involved in the kidnappings of Carroll and Fox based on information from detainees.
“We know he was responsible for the transportation and movement of Jill Carroll from her various hiding places and we know he is responsible for propaganda and ransom videos for Jill Carroll,” Caldwell said.
“(He) was the last one known to have personal custody of Tom Fox before his death,” Caldwell added.
Both President George W. Bush and U.S. military commander in Iraq General David Petraeus have labeled Sunni Islamist al Qaeda as “public enemy number one” in Iraq in the past week.
That would appear to mark a shift, after the Pentagon previously called anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia the greatest threat to peace in Iraq.
Al Qaeda is blamed for trying to foment civil war between majority Shi’ites and once-dominant Sunni Arabs.
The network had killed or wounded up to 2,000 civilians in April alone in attacks using car bombs and suicide vests, Caldwell said.
The Islamic State in Iraq was set up in October by al Qaeda in Iraq and some minor Sunni Arab insurgent groups. Al Qaeda in Iraq remains the main al Qaeda network in the country.
Baghdadi’s Islamic State in Iraq recently named a 10-man cabinet with a prime minister and portfolios including war.
Additional reporting by Dean Yates, Ibon Villelabeitia and Aseel Kami