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Qaeda-linked group in Iraq denies head captured

DUBAI (Reuters) - An al Qaeda-linked group in Iraq has denied Iraqi government reports of the capture of its leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, releasing an audiotape it said was of him mocking the U.S.-backed authorities as liars.

Iraq’s defense ministry announced in late April that Baghdadi had been captured, in what would be a blow to the insurgency at a time when a rash of major bombings has followed months of relative calm.

“Everyone has been surprised by the lies of the rulers,” the purported voice of Baghdadi said in the tape, posted on Islamist websites, and called on Sunnis not to support the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi authorities.

“Sunnis, the Shi’ites are your enemies. Their history is full of treacheries and plotting against you. Don’t trust them or let their honeyed words fool you.”

Baghdadi is said to be the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, which is close to al Qaeda’s main organization in Iraq, led by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir.

Iraqi officials have in the past reported the capture or killing of senior al Qaeda operatives who later turned out to have been incorrectly identified.

Accompanying the audiotape, websites carried a statement announcing that Baghdadi was alive and well.

“We in the Islamic State of Iraq would like to show that the (defense ministry) report ... is a lie and that we do not know in the first place the person whose picture was shown on the Iraqi satellite channel,” it said.

“We bring glad tidings to the Islamic nation that the leader of the faithful, Sheikh Abu Omar al-Baghdadi ... is well.”

Some experts say they are unconvinced that Baghdadi exists, suggesting he is a fictional character invented by al Qaeda in Iraq as part of a strategy to put an Iraqi figurehead at the top of an organization that is otherwise foreign-run.

In April, Mohammed al-Askari, a spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry, told al-Iraqiya state television that he could confirm Baghdadi’s identity and that Iraqi security forces had been secretly following him. He said the arrest was carried out without U.S. military assistance.

If Baghdadi’s arrest proves to be real, it would be a coup for Iraqi forces, who are trying to prove their abilities as the U.S. force of 137,000 prepares to fully withdraw by 2011.

The insurgency sparked by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 has calmed since 2007 but April saw a spike in violence, with insurgents showing themselves still capable of carrying out large-scale bombings.

The bombings have raised doubts about security gains as U.S. combat troops prepare to withdraw from Iraqi cities next month and Iraq gears up for national elections by early next year.

Reporting by Lin Noueihed; editing by Andrew Roche