BAGHDAD – The leader of the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq was captured Friday in a raid west of Baghdad — his identity revealed by a fellow insurgent detained with him, an Iraqi military spokesman said.
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was captured in a raid in Abu Ghraib on the western outskirts of Baghdad, said Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman of the Baghdad security operation. U.S. officials had no confirmation of the capture.
”One of the terrorists who was arrested with him confessed that the one in our hands is al-Baghdadi,” al-Moussawi said.
Al-Baghdadi has been identified in statements posted on Islamic extremist Web sites as the head of the Islamic State, which was proclaimed last year after the death of the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
In a tape released last November, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq called on Sunni Muslims to pledge their allegiance to a new state that militants have said they created in Iraq, and said al-Baghdadi was ”the ruler of believers” with al-Qaida in Iraq fighters under his command.
On Friday, the Islamic State of Iraq announced it would soon release a video on the death of a U.S. Air Force pilot whose F-16 jet crashed Nov. 27 north of Baghdad, according to IntelCenter, which monitors insurgent Web sites.
The pilot, Maj. Troy L. Gilbert, was listed officially as ”whereabouts unknown” but then reported by the U.S. military as dead following DNA tests from remains at the scene. IntelCenter said it was unclear what the video would show.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ventured into the streets and chatted with Iraqis at police checkpoints Friday to showcase security ahead of an international conference aimed at stabilizing the country with help from its neighbors.
Al-Maliki’s office released no advance details of the outing because of safety concerns, but issued photos afterward.
”The conference is proof that the situation in Baghdad is getting back to normal and that the political process is strong and stable,” al-Maliki told reporters at a power station nearby.
That al-Maliki could venture out at all was due to a modest improvement in security in the capital since the security operation began last month. Car bombings have decreased, despite last Monday’s devastating blast that killed 38 and this week’s rash of assaults against Shiite pilgrims that claimed more than 340 lives nationwide.
Security was heightened across Baghdad as international envoys prepared to arrive for Saturday’s conference, which would be held at Iraq’s Foreign Ministry just outside the heavily fortified Green Zone.
”Additional security measures have been taken to protect the officials participating in the conference and to secure the location of the meeting,” said Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman.
U.S. forces, meanwhile, killed a suspected militant and captured 16 others in raids across Iraq, the military said. Among those detained were a man accused of working in al-Qaida’s media wing and another believed to be responsible for kidnappings, beheadings and suicide attacks.
”The terrorist cells are being dismantled and operations will continue until we put an end to this dangerous plight that threatens the unity and the prosperity of the people,” al-Maliki said Friday.
South of the capital, Shiite Muslims began holy rites in Karbala at the start of a holiday that marks the end of a 40-day mourning period after the anniversary of the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson.
Crowds of pilgrims held their hands in the air and bowed their foreheads to the ground, chanting prayers outside Karbala’s Imam Hussein shrine, 50 miles south of Baghdad. Iraqi television channels streamed live video of noontime prayers at the shrine.
Millions of pilgrims have traveled to Karbala over the past week, and more than 340 people died in violence since Monday — most of them Shiite pilgrims killed in sectarian attacks along the way.
”To the martyrs who were killed during the procession to Karbala…we offer sympathy to their families,” Sheik Ahmed al-Safi said in a sermon Friday at the Iman Hussein shrine.
”I demand the government hit with an iron hand…the outlaws and terrorists,” he said. ”All Iraqis should feel safe under the state’s umbrella.”
The head of Iraq’s largest Shiite political group, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, endorsed Saturday’s regional conference in his own address to the faithful in Karbala. But he also warned Sunni Arab governments not to use the conference to pressure the Shiite leadership on behalf of their fellow Sunnis.
”We call on all international and the regional groups that will attend the conference to display a positive spirit and warn against any attempt to neglect the Iraqi national achievements,” he said.
Four million pilgrims were attending rites Friday, he said.
Sunni-led Arab governments will likely use the weekend conference to press for a greater Sunni role in Iraq. That has rankled Iraq’s Shiite leaders, who were marginalized for decades under Sunni minority rule.
The dispute reflects the complicated tensions that are likely to surface at the meeting, which gathers diplomats from Iraq’s Arab neighbors, Iran, the United States, Turkey and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
Iran has vowed to support its Shiite allies in the Iraqi government _ but is also concerned the U.S. will renew accusations that Iran is supporting Shiite militants and fueling Iraq’s bloodshed.
David Satterfield, the top State Department adviser on Iraq, who is leading the U.S. delegation, said Thursday that the U.S. would not walk away from direct talks with Iran or Syria during the conference, but the Bush administration apparently does not plan to seek out contact.