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Reports of deputy's capture called 'baseless'

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi officials thought they had the king of clubs.

Yesterday morning, the Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman announced the capture of one of Iraq's most wanted men, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a confidant of Saddam Hussein and the highest-ranking regime official at large.

In detail, the spokesman told a US-funded television station in Iraq how US and Iraqi forces had stormed a medical clinic in the northern city of Tikrit where the feeble Douri was receiving treatment for leukemia.

Other government officials elaborated: Iraqi troops backed by US helicopters and tanks battled their way through more than 170 loyal bodyguards, killing 70 and capturing 80. A few others got away.

By midafternoon, officials from no fewer than four Iraqi ministries -- including two ministers and a ranking officer from the Iraqi National Guard -- had all but confirmed Douri's capture. They were awaiting only the results of a DNA test that one said was ''60 percent" done.

But by nightfall, it appeared they had come up empty-handed.

''We don't have any information regarding this issue. What has been said of a statement by the Defense Ministry is baseless," Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan told Lebanon's LBC television channel. He offered no explanation for the confusion.

The daylong drama was proof that in Iraq, truth remains elusive even in the highest echelons of the US-backed government.

Wire services and Arab television stations ran stories describing the capture as a victory for the interim Iraqi government, which has struggled to prove its legitimacy in the face of repeated attacks and uprisings by insurgents.

Gunfire rattled through Iraq's cities as news spread. Douri was sixth on the United States' most-wanted list and the king of clubs in the infamous deck of most-sought fugitives.

Besieged by media phone calls, US officials avoided an outright denial.

No, they said, the US military had not conducted operations in Tikrit yesterday. And no, Douri was not being held in any US facilities.

US officials simply said they were awaiting more information from the Iraqis.

''I can say very firmly that we cannot confirm" news of the capture, a US Embassy official said. ''We want to emphasize that we have no confirmation of any of this."

By nightfall, US officials were suggesting that perhaps there had been some other operation somewhere in Iraq where Iraqi security forces had captured somebody that might look a bit like the red-mustached, bald-headed Douri, an uneducated former ice seller.

Military officials managed to turn up one operation with the Iraqi National Guard in Tikrit, on Friday. It aimed to take out insurgents who had been firing mortars at a coalition base.

The tally wasn't quite 70 dead and 80 captured, however. The operation resulted in three arrests.

''This is likely a case of mistaken identity," one US official said. ''No such operation as has been described took place."

Residents of Tikrit and other nearby towns variously mentioned as the site of Douri's capture were even more confused.

In Tikrit, there were no signs of a major operation. Medical officials at local clinics and store owners said they had seen no signs of US helicopters or Iraqi forces in the area.

''I haven't seen any American presence, nor Iraqi National Guard, except for normal patrols," said Nour Alsami, 37, a shop owner in Tikrit along a street filled with medical clinics. ''I haven't heard any confrontation."

Tikriti security officials professed even more puzzlement. A National Guard commander said his men had conducted no operations in Tikrit or nearby regions. One police commander said there had been no major confrontations of any kind.

''If such a thing is happening, everybody knows it," said a police academy official in Tikrit. ''I have not heard or seen any kind of confrontation."

By late yesterday, the Iraqi officials who had been so quick to talk with reporters earlier in the day had were not answering calls.

Asked to clarify the confusion over his earlier announcement that Douri was in National Guard custody, Colonel Adnan Abdelrahman, an Interior Ministry spokesman, had no answer.

''Call the Defense Ministry," he told one wire service. ''These are the people who told us this story."

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