BAGHDAD, Iraq – A spokesman said Friday the U.S. military has no indication that the Al Qaeda in Iraq leader was wounded in a raid north of Baghdad, while an Iraqi army officer said his deputy has been jailed south of Baghdad for a week.
An Iraqi military official, meanwhile, said the number of attacks and dead bodies have been reduced and displaced families returned to their homes due to the Baghdad security operation that began in force this week.
Iraqi army Brig. Qassim Moussawi, a spokesman for the Baghdad commander, said only 10 bodies had been reported by the morgue in the capital, compared to a previous average of 40 to 50 per day.
"This shows a big reduction in terror and killing operations in Baghdad," he said on Iraqi state television.
Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said earlier Friday that terror leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was wounded and an aide killed Thursday in a clash with Iraqi forces near Balad, north of Baghdad.
Khalaf declined to say how Iraqi forces knew al-Masri had been injured, and deputy Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal later said he could not confirm the information.
But spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said the U.S. military had no information to corroborate the account.
"We do not believe that he was either killed or wounded last night," Garver said of al-Masri. He said he also could not confirm any information about the aide.
An Iraqi army officer also said al-Masri's aide, identified as Abu Abdullah al-Majemaai, had been detained on Feb. 9 and remained in custody in a jail near Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the information, said he could not comment on al-Masri's whereabouts.
Separately, the U.S. military said a suspected Al Qaeda in Iraq cell leader accused in roadside bombs and rocket attacks was detained Thursday in Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles north of Baghdad.
Al-Masri took over the leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq after its charismatic leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a U.S. airstrike last year in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. In October, false reports surfaced that al-Masri was killed in a raid, and the U.S. military performed DNA tests on a slain militant to see if he was the Al Qaeda leader.
Al-Zarqawi was widely believed to have fomented sectarian war through his campaign of brutal suicide attacks against Shiite civilians. The first steps of the security operation display the sectarian divides complicating any plan to calm Baghdad — which is key to begin stabilizing the rest of the country.
Iraqi security officials also said 34 armed men belonging to a messianic Shiite cult were detained near Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.
The Soldiers of Heaven, or Jund al-Samaa, cult was involved in a fierce gunbattle last month with Iraqi forces who accused the group of planning to kill Shiite clerics and others in a bid to force the return of the "Hidden Imam" — a descendant of Islam's Prophet Muhammad who disappeared as a child in the 9th century. Shiites believe that he will return one day to bring justice to each.
The Baghdad spokesman said the security operation had already seen some success since it was formally launched by the Iraqis on Tuesday.
He said the 107 displaced families had returned to their homes in the Sunni enclave of Salman Pak, as well as some other areas, although he did not give more details.
And addressing a major concern of Iraqis who have suffered major traffic jams this week as new checkpoints have gone up across the city, Moussawi said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had ordered the military to find a way to ease the congestion without affecting operations.
The U.S. military said that five suspected militants had been detained and numerous pistols, rifles, AK-47s and small arms munitions seized during searches of more than 3,000 structures since an operation began Tuesday in mainly Shiite northeastern Baghdad. It also said clearing operations were continuing in the predominantly Sunni northern neighborhood of Azamiyah.
Al-Maliki has promised to target Shiite militia and Sunni violence equally as part of the neighborhood-to-neighborhood security sweep that he hopes will end the sectarian violence that has been on the rise since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra.
It was relatively calm in Baghdad amid a four-hour vehicle ban aimed at preventing suicide car bombs during the traditional weekly Islamic services.
Sunni cleric Harith al-Obeidi warned the government not to target mosques as part of the military action.
"Harming mosques and innocents are red lines to us," he said. "Mosques are places for worship and are symbols of peace."