U.S. Identifies al-Masri as New Al Qaeda in Iraq Leader

The U.S. military on Thursday identified Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian operative with connections to an Usama bin Laden lieutenant, as the probable new leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell showed a photo of al-Masri at a Baghdad press conference, saying he is apparently the same person that Al Qaeda in Iraq identified in a Web posting last week as its new leader — Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, a nom de guerre.

Caldwell said al-Masri's ability to lead the organization remained unclear, but added that he professed the "same tactics of attacking and killing civilians" as his predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The military spokesman said al-Masri was an Afghanistan-trained explosives expert who had mainly been responsible for facilitating the movement of foreign fighters from Syria into Baghdad.

"He operated primarily in the past out of southern Baghdad," Caldwell said. "Raids in April and May of this year into areas of southern Baghdad recovered some materials confirming his high level involvement and facilitation of foreign fighters to conduct attacks themselves."

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He has been a terrorist since 1982, "beginning with his involvement in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which was led by al-Zawahiri," Caldwell said.

"Al-Masri's intimate knowledge of Al Qaeda in Iraq and his close relationship with [Zarqawi's] operations will undoubtedly help facilitate and enable them to regain some momentum if, in fact, he is the one that assumes the leadership role," Caldwell said.

He said, however, that al-Masri's ability to exert leadership over Al Qaeda cells remained unclear and there were other "Al Qaeda senior leadership members and Sunni terrorists" who might try to take over the operations.

Caldwell singled out Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, who in the past had been identified as Al Qaeda in Iraq's deputy leader in statements by the group, and Abdullah bin Rashid al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Mujahedeen Shura Council — five allied groups in the Sunni Arab-dominated insurgency.

On Wednesday Brig. Gen. Carter Ham said at a Pentagon news conference that al-Masri, whose name surfaced shortly after reports of Zarqawi's death became widespread as a successor, had claimed to be in charge of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

"This individual said he is the successor for the leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq," Ham said. "I think we'll have the intelligence effort in the theater try to make that assessment if he is in fact exercising the leadership role in Al Qaeda in Iraq."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.