BAGHDAD — The leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was arrested in the northern city of Mosul, the Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman said Thursday.
Mohammed al-Askari said the arrest of al-Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, was confirmed to him by the Iraqi commander of the province. There was no immediate confirmation or comment from U.S. forces on the arrest.
The U.S. military in Baghdad said "we are currently checking with Iraqi authorities to confirm the accuracy of this information."
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said that Mosul police "arrested one of al-Qaida's leaders at midnight and during the primary investigations he admitted that he is Abu Hamza Al-Muhajir."
News of the arrest was also reported by Iraqi state television and Arab satellite TV stations.
The state channel, Iraqiya, said that Minister of Interior Jawad al-Bolani would reward Mosul police for the capture.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khalaf told the station by phone that a source close to the al-Qaida leader informed Mosul police that al-Masri would be at a house in the city's Wadi Hajar area at midnight Wednesday.
"The police raided this house and arrested him. During the primary investigation, he confessed that he is Abu Hamza Al-Muhajir, the leader of Al-Qaida in Iraq. Now a broader investigation of him is being conducted," he said to Iraqiya.
If confirmed, the arrest would represent a major blow to al-Qaida in Iraq, which has been on the run for the past year following a shift in alliances by Sunni tribesmen in western Anbar province, and elsewhere, and an influx of thousands of U.S. troops.
The U.S. military considers the organization its number one enemy in Iraq.
"The commander of Ninevah military operations informed me that Iraqi troops captured Abu Hamza al-Muhajir the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq," al-Askari told The Associated Press by telephone.
He did not have any further details nor did he say when the al-Qaida leader was arrested.
Mosul is currently a major battleground for U.S. forces and al-Qaida.
Ninevah governor Duraid Kashmola also said by phone that al-Masri had been arrested.
Al-Masri, an Egyptian militant, took over al-Qaida in Iraq after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed June 7, 2006 in a U.S. airstrike northeast of Baghdad.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization that includes al-Qaida in Iraq, last year announced an "Islamic Cabinet" for Iraq and named al-Masri as "minister of war."
U.S. officials said al-Masri joined an extremist group led by al-Qaida's No.2 official in 1982. He joined al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan in 1999 and trained as a car bombing expert before traveling to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Few details are known about him, but he is believed to have been born in 1969 in Egypt's Nile Delta province of El-Sharqiya. He reportedly left school in the early 1980s to join Islamic Jihad, a group that opposed Egypt's pro-American government and linked to the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
According to associates in Afghanistan, al-Masri has been involved in Islamic extremist movements since 1982, when he joined Islamic Jihad, a terror group led by Ayman al-Zawahri, who became bin Laden's chief deputy.
Al-Masri fought with Muslim rebels against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and later ran al-Qaida training camps there.
Associated Press reporter Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report from Baghdad.