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US ID's new Al Qaeda leader in Iraq

But some officials, analysts skeptical

BAGHDAD -- The US military presented the new face of Al Qaeda in Iraq yesterday , displaying a photograph of a bearded man in a traditional white Arab headdress and saying he was taking over after the death of Abu Musab alZarqawi.

The new leader is Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an explosives specialist who trained in Afghanistan and has links to Osama bin Laden's top deputy, said Major General William Caldwell.

He also is the man behind the nom de guerre made public by Al Qaeda in Iraq after Zarqawi was killed last week in a US airstrike on his safe house outside Baghdad, the military spokesman said.

US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said, however, that it's not certain that Masri is Zarqawi's successor.

``That's clearly one of the leading names, but we're going to need a little bit of time to sort out -- and they're clearly needing a little time to sort out -- where they go after what is clearly a big blow to Al Qaeda," Hadley said at the White House.

Caldwell said Masri was the man identified in an Internet posting by Al Qaeda that said Abu Hamza al-Muhajer was Zarqawi's successor. Muhajer means ``immigrant" in Arabic and suggested he was not an Iraqi.

According to the US military, Masri was a founding member of Al Qaeda in Iraq. After meeting the Jordanian-born Zarqawi in Afghanistan, he followed him to Iraq to help set up the terror cell in 2003.

Even before the terror leader's death, the Bush administration posted a $200,000 bounty on Masri because of his level of leadership within Al Qaeda, Caldwell said.

Citing recently declassified documents, he said Masri has been a terrorist since 1982, ``beginning with his involvement in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad," which was led by Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's top deputy.

Going by that chronology, the photograph the military presented -- showing a young man with a sparse mustache and a trimmed goatee -- appeared to be at least several years old.

Caldwell said the US Defense Intelligence Agency provided the picture, adding, ``Everything we had was classified just 24 hours ago associated with this gentleman -- this terrorist."

Yet Islamic watchers in Egypt and abroad said they had never heard of al-Masri -- whose name means ``the Egyptian" -- and expressed skepticism about US contentions that he was poised to become Iraq's new terror leader.

``His codename doesn't ring a bell for me; he's not one of the wanted jihadis in Egypt," said Egyptian lawyer Montasser el-Zayat, who was imprisoned with Al Qaeda's number two leader, Zawahri, from 1981-84.

In an indication of the confusion surrounding the identity of the group's new leader, the US first announced Masri's name shortly after Zarqawi was killed June 7. But Al Qaeda in Iraq later identified its new leader as Muhajer.

The new leader issued a Web statement Tuesday vowing to avenge Zarqawi's death and threatening horrific attacks ``in the coming days."

``Don't be overcome with joy about killing our sheik Abu Musab [ al-Zarqawi] , God bless his soul, because he has left lions behind him," the statement said.

Citing recently declassified information, Caldwell said the military believes Masri first went to Afghanistan in 1999 to receive training and to lecture on Islam to other militants. There he became an expert in building roadside bombs, skills he used in Fallujah and Baghdad.

He trained with Zarqawi at the al-Farouq camp in Afghanistan, and they began to collaborate in Iraq. Raids in April and May in southern Baghdad recovered material confirming his high-level involvement in moving foreign fighters from Syria to Iraq, Caldwell said.

However, Yasser al-Sirri, an Egyptian who runs the Islamic Observation Center in London, said information supplied by Al Qaeda in announcing the new leader pointed to another man: Abdullah bin Rashid al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Mujahideen Shura Council -- five allied groups in the Sunni Arab-dominated insurgency.

``I'm 95 percent sure that this al-Masri doesn't exist," Sirri said, adding that the group could be trying to cover up the nationality of its new leader to promote a broader Islamic identity.

``Al Qaeda does not want to show that he is an Iraqi because they work under the Islamic banner . . . and they seek international jihad," Sirri said.

Caldwell acknowledged that Masri's ability to exert leadership over Al Qaeda cells remained unclear and said other ``Al Qaeda senior leadership members and Sunni terrorists" could try to take over the operations.

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