BAGHDAD – The U.S. command said Wednesday the highest-ranking Iraqi in the leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq has been arrested, adding that information from him indicates the group's foreign-based leadership wields considerable influence over the Iraqi chapter.
"Al-Mashhadani is believed to be the most senior Iraqi in the Al Qaeda in Iraq network," Bergner said. He said al-Mashhadani was a close associate of Abu Ayub al-Masri, the Egyptian-born head of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Bergner said al-Mashhadani served as an intermediary between al-Masri and Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri.
"In fact, communication between the senior Al Qaeda leadership and al-Masri frequently went through al-Mashhadani," Bergner said. He added: "There is a clear connection between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda senior leadership outside Iraq."
The degree of control and supervision between bin Laden's inner circle 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.
Some have suggested that linking Al Qaeda in Iraq to bin Laden is simply an attempt to justify the Iraq war as an extension of the global conflict that began with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
But the U.S. military has insisted that there are links between the local Al Qaeda group and the bin Laden clique and has released captured letters from time to time, suggesting the foreign-based leaders provide at least broad direction.
Pointing to the foreign influence in Al Qaeda also undermines support for the organization among nationalistically minded Iraqis, including some in insurgent groups that have broken with Al Qaeda.
Bergner said that al-Mashhadani and al-Masri "co-founded a virtual organization in cyberspace called the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006."
"The Islamic State of Iraq is the latest efforts by Al Qaeda to market itself and its goal of imposing a Taliban-like state on the Iraqi people," Bergner said.
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 Qaeda in Iraq in an attempt to put an Iraqi face on the leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq," Bergner said.
Bergner said al-Mashhadani had told interrogators that Al Qaeda leaders outside the country "continue to provide directions, they continue to provide a focus for operations, they continue to flow foreign fighters into Iraq."
He said al-Mashhadani was a leader of the militant Ansar al-Sunnah group before joining Al Qaeda in Iraq 2 1/2 years ago. Al-Mashhadani served as the Al Qaeda media chief for Baghdad and then was appointed the media chief for the whole country.
Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Diyala province in June 2006 and was replaced by al-Masri.