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Al-Qaida in Iraq Figure in Custody

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Now we go to Iraq, where the U.S. military says a senior al-Qaida operative is in U.S. custody. Described as the most senior Iraqi in the Sunni Islamic al-Qaida in Iraq organization, he was captured in Mosul on July 4th.

General KEVIN BERGNER (U.S. Army): He served as the al-Qaida media emir for all of Iraq and served as an intermediary between AQI leader al-Masri, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

WERTHEIMER: That was General Kevin Bergner, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq. For more, we go now to NPR's John Burnet who's in Baghdad. John, who is this person?

JOHN BURNETT: Linda, he's Khalid al-Mashadani. He's a Baghdad resident, as you said, who they identified as the senior Iraqi in al-Qaida in Iraq, the media emir. I guess he's sort of al-Qaida's and Iraq's equivalent to General Bergner as the commander of spin.

WERTHEIMER: If he a significant a person as the U.S. military says he is?

BURNETT: Well, he's not a tactical commander or anything like that. What the U.S. military authorities say about Mashadani is that, last year, he created a bogus-front organization called the Islamic State of Iraq, which has its own Web site. And along with the front organization, they say that Mashadani created a fictitious leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, a guy named Umar al-Baghdadi who's actually an actor and not part of the organization at all.

WERTHEIMER: He was captured, Mashadani was, almost two weeks ago. Why are we just hearing about it now?

BURNETT: Well, it's hard to say. I mean, obviously, they've been interrogating him. And they presented the results of that interrogation to the journalists today in Baghdad. But the main talking point here was the same drumbeat that we heard at last week's press conference with General Bergner. It's all about al-Qaida. They want to make abundantly clear to the American public that that's public enemy number one here in Iraq. And to that end, the message today was that the senior leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq are actually the foreign leaders of al-Qaida believed to be headquartered in Pakistan. And he even went so far as to say that these foreign leaders were directing the big bombings that we've seen here in Iraq.

WERTHEIMER: And do you have any other evidence that may be true, that al-Qaida's senior foreign leadership is specifically directing events in Iraq?

BURNETT: Well, the White House and the military spokespersons want us to believe that. When pressed by reporters today, General Bergner could give no specific examples and actually acknowledged that the rank-and-file of al-Qaida in Iraq continued to be largely Iraqis themselves.

WERTHEIMER: For example, did they say anything about al-Qaida in Iraq having anything to do with one of the deadliest attacks in the north since the beginning of the war, Monday's truck bombing in Kirkuk, more than 85 people died?

BURNETT: It's an interesting point, and it really gets to the dark art of who done it. That's part of life in wartime Iraq. And it's also an indication of how sketchy and imprecise that can be trying to decipher who it is that carried out these horrific bombings.

So at the press conference today, General Bergner, as well as a Navy rear admiral afterwards, they both attributed those bombings in Kirkuk to al-Qaida in Iraq simply because of the spectacular, headline-grabbing nature of them.

But it's interesting because earlier this week there was a deputy commanding general named Ed Cardon who told me something completely different. He said, jumping to conclusions in Iraq is always dangerous. You cannot assume it's a Sunni bombing. In the case of Kirkuk, who said it could be sectarian violence between Shias and Kurds, it could be outright thuggery. But in this political climate, the White House and their military spokesmen in Baghdad tend to blame al-Qaida for nearly all the violence over here.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's John Burnett in Baghdad. Thanks very much, John.

BURNETT: My pleasure, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Today, the U.S. military announced the capture of a man described as a senior al-Qaida operative. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.