BAGHDAD — Iraq's defense minister on Wednesday insisted that the head of an al-Qaida front group was indeed in custody, refuting a potentially embarrassing online denial purportedly posted by the very man he maintains was arrested.
Abdul-Qader al-Obedi told lawmakers that the man captured on April 23, and later paraded in front of cameras, was Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, leader of the al-Qaida dominated Islamic State in Iraq.
On Tuesday, however, militant Web sites carried an audio message purportedly from al-Baghdadi mocking the Iraqi government for lying about his arrest and denying he had been taken captive. The recording called to mind previous claims by Iraqis of captured terror leaders that were later found to be false.
"Everyone was surprised by the lies of the Green Zone leaders who claimed again that they detained me," said the speaker in the online message.
Rita Katz, the director of the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group which closely monitors such Web sites, said the voice seemed like that of the person identified as al-Baghdadi in the past.
"It sounds as though it is the same individual," she told The Associated Press.
Al-Obeidi, however, pointed to the two weeks between the individual's arrest and announcement as evidence of power struggle in the group over who is to be the new leader.
"The terrorists are having differences in naming his successor," he said, adding that the suspect in custody gave up information on insurgent cells in Baghdad and Mosul.
The U.S. military never confirmed al-Baghdadi's arrest and, in the past, has even questioned his existence, saying he could be a fictitious character used to give an Iraqi face to an organization dominated by foreign al-Qaida fighters.
Unlike some top jihadi figures, al-Baghdadi has never issued images of himself, releasing only audio messages.
Even if he does exist, it was unclear what his role is in the terror group _ whether he really runs it or whether he's a figurehead.
Iraqi officials also have reported al-Baghdadi's arrest or killing before, only to later say they were wrong.
In 2007, Iraq's government reported that al-Baghdadi had been killed and released photos of what it said was his body. Later, security officials said they had arrested al-Baghdadi. In both cases, the U.S. military said at the time it could not be confirmed. The reports turned out to be untrue.
Past arrests and killings of top insurgent figures, however, has done little to blunt the violence.
The days since the announcement of al-Baghdadi's capture have witnessed a surge in attacks.
On Wednesday morning, a senior anti-corruption official was assassinated on his way to work.
Ali Mohammed Kazim of the Public Integrity Commission was driving to his office in the northern Shaab neighborhood when a car blocked his path and gunmen armed with silenced pistols walked over and shot him dead, said police, citing eye witnesses.
The incident is similar to the early morning slaying of a high ranking traffic officer two days earlier.
Amid the occasional spikes of violence, however, the U.S. military has been moving forward in transferring bases to Iraqi forces ahead of a June 30 deadline to remove all Coalition forces from urban areas.
The U.S. Army handed over its base at the 6,000-year-old archaeological site of Ur in the south of the country to the Iraqi military in a ceremony Wednesday.
According to the Bible, Ur was the home of the Prophet Abraham. The ruins include a 4,000 year-old partially reconstructed ziggurat from the Sumerian period.
The presence of a U.S. base on one of Iraq's most significant archaeological sites prompted an outcry among international experts.
Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.