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US says arrested Al Qaeda leader has bin Laden ties

White House again presses Iraq-terror link

Khaled Abdul-Fattah Dawoud Mahmoud al-Mashhadani ferried messages to Al Qaeda in Iraq , the US military says. Khaled Abdul-Fattah Dawoud Mahmoud al-Mashhadani ferried messages to Al Qaeda in Iraq , the US military says.

BAGHDAD -- The US command yesterday announced the arrest of an Al Qaeda leader it said served as the link between the organization's command in Iraq and Osama bin Laden's inner circle, enabling it to wield considerable influence over the Iraqi group.

The announcement was made as the White House steps up efforts to link the war in Iraq to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with a growing number of Americans opposing the Iraq conflict. Some independent analysts question the extent of Al Qaeda's role in Iraq.

Meanwhile, four US soldiers and their Iraqi interpreter were killed when a roadside bomb exploded near their patrol in east Baghdad. The blast occurred yesterday during operations to disrupt the flow of explosives into the capital, the US military announced today.

Khaled Abdul-Fattah Dawoud Mahmoud al-Mashhadani was the highest-ranking Iraqi in the Al Qaeda in Iraq leadership when he was captured July 4 in Mosul, US military spokesman Brigadier General Kevin Bergner said.

Bergner told reporters that Mashhadani carried messages from bin Laden, and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, to the Egyptian-born head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

"There is a clear connection between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda senior leadership outside Iraq," Bergner said.

He said Mashhadani had told interrogators that Al Qaeda's global leadership provides "directions, they continue to provide a focus for operations" and "they continue to flow foreign fighters into Iraq, foreign terrorists."

The relationship between bin Laden and the leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq has long been the subject of debate. Some private analysts believe the foreign-based leadership plays a minor role in day-to-day operations. Analysts have also questioned US military assertions that Al Qaeda in Iraq is the main threat to US forces here.

Even before Mashhadani's arrest, US military officials have insisted that links exist between the local Al Qaeda group and the bin Laden clique. From time to time, officials have released captured letters indicating a flow of policy instructions to the group's commanders in Iraq.

Although numerous armed groups operate here, Al Qaeda in Iraq's signature attacks -- high-profile truck bombings against civilian targets -- were largely responsible for unleashing the wave of sectarian slaughter last year that transformed the character of the conflict, US officials say.

"What we've learned not just from the capture of al-Mashhadani but from other Al Qaeda operatives is that there is a flow of strategic directions of prioritization, of messaging, and other guidance that comes from Al Qaeda senior leadership to the Al Qaeda in Iraq leadership," Bergner said.

Al Qaeda in Iraq was proclaimed in 2004 by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He 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.

Zarqawi posted Web statements declaring his allegiance to bin Laden and began using the name of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in Diyala Province in June 2006 and was replaced by Masri.

Although Al Qaeda in Iraq's rank-and-file are mostly Iraqis, the Iraqi group's top leadership is dominated by foreigners, Bergner said. That includes Masri, who joined an Al Qaeda forerunner in Egypt in the 1980s and later helped train fighters who drove the Soviet army from Afghanistan.

Pointing to the foreign influence within Al Qaeda in Iraq could undermine support for the organization among nationalistically minded Iraqis, including some in insurgent groups that have broken with Al Qaeda.

In an effort to give Al Qaeda an Iraqi face, Bergner said Mashhadani and Masri established a front organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq, which the general described as "a virtual organization in cyberspace."

In Web postings, the Islamic State of Iraq has identified its leader as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, a name indicating Iraqi origin, with the Egyptian Masri as minister of war. There are no known photos of Baghdadi.

Bergner said Mashhadani had told interrogators that Baghdadi is a "fictional role" created by Masri and that an actor with an Iraqi accent is used for audio recordings of speeches posted on the Web.

Proclamation of the Islamic State is widely seen as a blunder by Al Qaeda because it alienated independently minded insurgent groups that opposed the religious zealots' goal of an Islamic caliphate.

Fearing they would be marginalized by Al Qaeda, Sunni sheiks and insurgent leaders began turning against the terror movement, in some cases cooperating with US forces, notably in Anbar Province.

Also yesterday, the US military said three American soldiers were killed the day before in separate bombings in the capital. Two were killed in west Baghdad and another died in east Baghdad, the military said.

Four other Americans were wounded in the east Baghdad blast, the command said. Two insurgents responsible for the attack were identified, engaged, and killed, the statement added.

At least 12 people were killed yesterday in a series of bombings in mostly Shi'ite areas of eastern Baghdad. Seven of them died in two back-to-back bombings near a gas station in the Amin district, police said.

Eight civilians were killed when gunmen opened fire in the city of Khalis, police said.