BAGHDAD -- US and Iraqi officials chased reports yesterday that the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq was killed by rivals north of Baghdad. But US authorities urged caution and warned that even if the claim were true, the death of the shadowy Abu Ayyub al-Masri would probably not spell the end of the terror movement in Iraq.
Reports of Masri's death first emerged from the Interior Ministry, which said the Al Qaeda leader was gunned down by rivals in his movement yesterday at a bridge near Lake Tharthar just north of Baghdad, where the US military believes Al Qaeda operates training camps.
Later, however, ministry spokesman Brigadier General Abdul-Karim Khalaf said Masri's death had not been confirmed. Another senior official, Major General Hussein Kamal, told the Associated Press that "we are trying to investigate and confirm the report."
Other Iraqi officials said word of the purported death came from an informant and that efforts were under way to retrieve the body. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the information is sensitive.
An Al Qaeda front organization denied that Masri, an Egyptian also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajer with a $1 million bounty on his head, had been killed. The Islamic State of Iraq said in a Web statement that Masri was "alive and still fighting the enemy of God."
Late yesterday, the leader of a Sunni Arab group opposed to Al Qaeda told Iraqi television that his fighters tracked down and killed Masri along with seven of his aides, two of them Saudis. "Eyewitnesses confirmed his death and their corpses are still at the scene," said Abdul-Sattar al-Rishawi, head of the Anbar Salvation Council.
Iraqi officials have released similar reports about the killing or capture of top insurgent figures, only to acknowledge later that the claims were inaccurate. With the Iraqis' track record, American officials advised caution.
"We've heard the report on al-Masri," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said. "We're trying with the Iraqis to confirm whether or not it's true. I think we don't know the answer to that at this point."
US Ambassador Ryan Crocker said Masri's death would be a positive development, but he played down suggestions it would spell the end of the terror threat in Iraq.
"Clearly taking a major terrorist off the battlefield is an important thing and if we can confirm it, if this did happen, without question it would be a significant and positive development," Crocker told reporters in Washington via a teleconference.
"That said, I would not expect it to in any way bring to an end Al Qaeda's activities in Iraq," he added. "My sense is that it is now a very decentralized terrorist effort, so while removing its current head would be a good and positive thing, I think we have to expect that we will need to continue dealing with further Al Qaeda attacks."