Iraqi police said they captured Abu Ayyub al-Masri — also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir — the leader of the Sunni insurgent...

Share story

BAGHDAD — Iraqi police said they captured Abu Ayyub al-Masri — also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir — the leader of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq, but the U.S. military said it could not confirm the report.

Iraqi officials said al-Muhajir was apprehended early Thursday after he was found sleeping during a midnight raid on a house in the northern city of Mosul. Al-Muhajir confessed his identity in an interrogation, said Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, a Ministry of Interior spokesman.

Al-Muhajir is believed to be an Egyptian, about 40 years old and an associate of Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.

The al-Qaida in Iraq leader is believed to have taken over leadership of the group after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006. Iraqi officials reported in May 2007 that al-Muhajir had been killed.

His capture Thursday, if true, would be an important boost for Iraqi security forces but may not signify the end of al-Qaida in Iraq’s presence in the country. Since al-Zarqawi’s death, the organization has continued a campaign of killing while pushing its strict interpretation of Islam.

There have, however, been false alarms in the past about al-Muhajir. At least twice — in 2006 and May 2007 — reports circulated that he was dead, but they were proved wrong.

The reported arrest of al-Muhajir also turned attention back to the Sunni insurgency after weeks of battles with Shiite militias.

Militia leaders loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr vowed to resist efforts by Iraqi and U.S. forces to relocate residents of some of the most violent parts of Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood to camps.

For a month, the densely populated Shiite enclave on the capital’s eastern edge has served as a battleground in clashes between al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia and U.S. military and Iraqi security forces. The battles have focused on an area in the southwestern quadrant of the district, believed to be the launching site of most rockets targeting the heavily fortified Green Zone.