U.S. military officials denied reports Friday that Iraqi forces had captured the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq in the northern city of Mosul on Thursday.

Iraqi officials claimed late Thursday they had arrested Abu Ayyub al-Masri — also known as Abu Hamza al-Mujahir — during a raid in Mosul, which has been described as the last urban stronghold in the country for al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgent groups.

But the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, said Friday that “Neither [U.S. nor Iraqi forces] detained or killed AAM yesterday.”

“AAM” refers to al-Masri.

Several other U.S. officials in Iraq said on background that the Iraqis had arrested a man with “a similar or the same name” as the al-Qaida in Iraq leader, leading to the announcement by the Iraqi army late Thursday.

Al-Masri, an Egyptian, took command of the Sunni insurgent group after Jordanian militant Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. airstrike in June 2006. Al-Masri has a $5 million bounty on his head.

It is not the first time that his capture or killing had been prematurely announced. Last May, Iraqi officials said al-Masri had been killed, though that claim was later retracted. A similar incident occurred the year before.

Though al-Zarqawi had repeatedly been singled out publicly by U.S. officials during his reign, al-Masri has not been as much a symbol for the group. In an audiotape released last month, al-Masri called for increased attacks on U.S. troops and challenged President Bush.

Al-Qaida in Iraq fighters were to provide the “head of an American as a present to the trickster Bush” in a renewed series of attacks that he dubbed the “Attack of Righteousness,” according to news reports at the time.

While U.S. commanders have said al-Qaida in Iraq has been “severely downgraded” and have focused recent attention on Shiite militias as the top security concern in the country, the group remains a threat, particularly in the north.

Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, told the House Armed Services Committee in April that, “Unchecked, the ‘Special Groups’ pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq.”

Al-Qaida in Iraq has been blamed, or taken responsibility for, many of the worst bomb attacks in the country since the war began. Among the most notorious was the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra that intensified the sectarian warfare that ravaged the country for the next year.

But, the Sunni network has since suffered largely because of two changes in Iraq: the aligning of Sunni tribes with U.S. forces, particularly in Anbar province; and the “surge” of extra combat troops that focused on areas where Sunni fighters were strong.

The Sunni insurgents have largely been pushed to the north of Baghdad, including to Mosul and areas around Baqouba.

Al-Qaida in Iraq “is the No. 1 enemy we are facing in northern Iraq, although our operations here have made great strides in reducing their capability,” Maj. Peggy Kageleiry, a spokeswoman for Multi-National Division-North, said Friday.

“Attacks are still at the lowest they have been since June of last year. We have Sunnis reconciling with their local governments by the thousands, the economy is on the mend and the governments are becoming more capable every day.”

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