Reuters reports this morning that the Iraqis have claimed to capture Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the man who reportedly leads al-Qaeda in Iraq. The US military has not confirmed this, and given the history of these claims, the lack of confirmation means we should take this with a large grain of salt. It’s worth noting a couple of points about the report itself:
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the purported leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda-linked insurgent group, has been captured, Iraqi state television said on Thursday.
The insurgent group is one of a handful of Sunni Arab extremist groups blamed for suicide bombings and other attacks in the northern city of Mosul and other parts of Iraq. …
Al-Iraqiya television said Baghdadi was believed to have been captured in eastern Baghdad. Security experts have previously speculated that Baghdadi was a character invented by some extremist groups rather than a real person. …
Iraqi forces are taking greater responsibility for security in Iraq as U.S. troops, who now number close to 140,000 in Iraq, prepare to withdraw fully by the end of 2011.
Finding him in Baghdad would be a bit of a surprise. Most of AQI has been bottled up in Mosul and Kirkuk and the north. It certainly would demonstrate the usual courage of AQ leadership — hide like rats while getting their recruits to do all the dying for them.
However, we’ve heard more than one “Baghdadi captured” rumor ever since he was rumored to have taken over the AQI network after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi reached room temperature, courtesy of the US military. In fact, the US military remains at least somewhat skeptical that any such person exists. AQ may have created the “al-Baghdadi” personality as a public-relations ploy to make AQI look like a native “insurgent” group, as Reuters unhelpfully characterizes them here. While some groups were legitimately native insurgencies, AQI has never been one of them; they’re comprised almost entirely by non-Iraqis.
Also, Reuters misreports the status of American forces in Iraq. While it’s true that the SOFA agreement for their presence runs out at the end of 2011, it does not mean that we will completely remove all our troops when it expires. I doubt the Iraqi government wants that; they need our logistical support as well as our air-defense capabilities, of which they have none. Even Barack Obama has recently asserted that we will have a large presence in Iraq for the long term.
If Baghdadi exists and Iraq captured him, great. However, I’d advise everyone not to buy party favors until the US confirms it, and a news agency with a better clue about Iraq reports it.