WASHINGTON (American Forces Press Service, May 3, 2007) - Coalition forces have been targeting al Qaeda in Iraq over the last six days in a series of raids dubbed "Operation Rat Trap," a senior spokesman told reporters in Baghdad today.
Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said coalition forces have no information that would substantiate the rumored -- and widely reported -- deaths of terrorist leaders Abu Ayyub al-Masri or Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. In fact, the general added, coalition officials don't know who Baghdadi is.
However, Maj. Gen. Caldwell said, coalition forces killed Muharib Abdul Latif, al Qaeda in Iraq's chief propagandist, at about 2 a.m. May 1. After coalition forces confirmed Latif's identity, they released the body to a member of his tribe for proper burial.
A subsequent encounter at an Iraqi security checkpoint may have led to reports that Baghdadi had been killed, Maj. Gen. Caldwell said.
Latif was a close associate of Masri, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Caldwell said, and he was involved in numerous high-profile kidnappings, including those of journalist Ms. Jill Carroll and missionary Mr. Tom Fox.
"Based on multiple detainee debriefings, we know that he was responsible for the transportation and movement of Jill Carroll from her various hiding places (and that) he was responsible for the propaganda and ransom videos from the Jill Carroll kidnapping," said Maj. Gen. Caldwell.
In addition, Latif was the last one known to have had personal custody of Mr. Tom Fox before his death, Maj. Gen. Caldwell said.
"We also know he was involved in the kidnapping of two Germans in January of 2006," Maj. Gen. Caldwell continued. "Between May and September of 2006, we know he was working as a money and foreign facilitator for al Qaeda in Iraq in Syria."
Latif then made his way back into Iraq and took over as the minister of information for al Qaeda, Maj. Gen. Caldwell said.
While coalition officials are aware of reports that Masri was killed and that his body was turned over to coalition forces, the general said, they have no evidence to that effect.
"I know there's been a couple announcements that somebody did kill Ayyub al-Masri," he said. "We do not have nor do we know anybody that has in their possession right now either a person alive or dead that we can do DNA analysis or photo identification on at this point. We just don't have any information or knowledge of that. I am aware, though, of the claims that have been made. I've read them in the press reporting. But we cannot do any independent confirmation of that ourselves as of this point."
Regarding Baghdadi, the general told reporters that coalition officials not only have no evidence that Baghdadi is dead, but also don't even know whether he exists. "We're not really sure who that is," he said. "There's a lot of discussion about a person called al-Baghdadi, but we actually have no knowledge who that might be."
Coalition forces will continue to target al Qaeda in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Caldwell said. "Al Qaeda continues to use indiscriminate targeting against civilians," he said. "We've said during the month of April somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000 innocent Iraqi civilians were either killed or injured through the use of car bombs and suicide vests, so this is an important operation to take on."
In Iraq's Anbar province, Maj. Gen. Caldwell said, terrorists no longer are welcome.
"From the efforts by the local tribe leaders taking on al Qaeda and saying that their tactics, their methods, the means by which they intimidate people, the indiscriminate killings against innocent civilians, their use of chlorine car bombs that they do use -- it's just something they're not going to tolerate any more," Maj. Gen. Caldwell said. "That's a decision they've made, and they are not allowing al Qaeda to operate freely as they once did out in that area."