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Top insurgent reported caught

Seen as victory in Iraqi fight vs. militants

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki greeted an Iraqi soldier yesterday in Baghdad. Maliki toured the city in a demonstration that the US-led crackdown is making progress. US forces killed a suspected militant and arrested 16 across Iraq, the military said. (Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images)

BAGHDAD -- The shadowy leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al Qaeda-inspired group that challenged the authority of Iraq's government, was captured yesterday in a raid on the western outskirts of Baghdad, an Iraqi military spokesman said.

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was arrested along with several other insurgents in a raid in the town of Abu Ghraib, said Brigadier General Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for the Baghdad security operation. US officials had no confirmation of the capture and said they were looking into the report.

Moussawi said Baghdadi acknowledged his identity, as did another terrorist suspect, who confirmed "that the one in our hands is al-Baghdadi."

The arrest of Baghdadi would be a major victory for US and Iraqi forces in their fight against Sunni insurgents, especially the hardcore religious extremists who have shown no interest in negotiating an end to their struggle.

But some analysts have pointed out that the Al Qaeda-linked extremists rebounded after the death last June of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda in Iraq leader who died in a US airstrike in Diyala Province.

The self-styled Islamic State of Iraq was proclaimed in October, when a militant network that includes Al Qaeda in Iraq announced that it had established an Islamic state in six provinces including Baghdad that have large Sunni populations, along with parts of two other provinces that are predominantly Shi'ite.

Unlike Zarqawi, very little is known of Baghdadi, including his real name. It is widely assumed that the name Baghdadi was taken as part of a campaign to make Al Qaeda appear more of a homegrown Iraqi movement instead of an organization dominated by foreigners.

In a tape released last November, Zarqawi's successor, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, called on Sunni Muslims to pledge their allegiance to this new state and said Baghdadi was "the ruler of believers," with Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters under his command.

Since then, the trappings of an Islamic shadow state with Al Qaeda as its base has been taking shape in some towns and cities of Anbar Province where a government presence hardly exists, according to Sunni residents.

Residents of Sunni insurgent areas have reported seeing handbills on walls in the group's name warning against un-Islamic behavior such as drinking alcohol.

Some residents of Anbar say Islamic State members have on occasion publicly flogged men for other offenses such as wearing long hair or harassing women, and provided cooking fuel to residents in areas where the Iraqi government has little presence.

Yesterday, the Islamic State of Iraq announced it would soon release a video on the death of a US Air Force pilot whose F-16 jet crashed Nov. 27 north of Baghdad, according to IntelCenter, which monitors insurgent websites.

The pilot, Major Troy L. Gilbert, was listed officially as "whereabouts unknown" and then reported by the US military as dead after DNA tests were made from remains at the crash site. IntelCenter said it was unclear what the video would show.

The Islamic State has also claimed responsibility for downing several of the US helicopters lost since Jan. 20, including one in Diyala Province where 12 soldiers were killed, and a Sea Knight transport helicopter north of Fallujah where seven died.

The reported arrest followed rumors this week that Baghdadi's brother was arrested in a raid near Tikrit, and occurred at a time when the Baghdad security operation is showing early signs of progress in curbing violence. Car bombings have decreased in frequency, despite Monday's blast that killed 38 and this week's rash of assaults against Shi'ite pilgrims that claimed more than 340 lives nationwide.

US forces killed a suspected militant and captured 16 others in raids across Iraq, the military said yesterday. Among those detained were a man accused of working in Al Qaeda's media wing and another believed to be responsible for kidnappings, beheadings, and suicide attacks.

Flanked by guards with machine guns, Iraq's prime minister ventured out of the Green Zone yesterday. Nouri al-Maliki toured parts of the city and chatted with security forces in a demonstration that the US-led crackdown is making progress.

South of the capital, Shi'ite Muslims began holy rites in Karbala at the start of a holiday that marks the end of a 40-day mourning period after the anniversary of the death of the Prophet Mohammad's grandson.

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