The Iraqi government said Tuesday that it is certain that its forces captured Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the head of al-Qaida in Iraq and one of the highest-profile terror suspects in the country.
Iraqi officials have touted the arrest of Baghdadi several time before, and each time the claims have turned out to be false. But they said this time was different.
On state television Tuesday, Baghdad security spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta said the government can prove it has Baghdadi and that he's orchestrated scores of attacks in Iraq. The channel broadcast a photograph that it said showed Baghdadi in custody.
Atta said he was arrested Thursday in the capital's Rusafa area. Iraqi security forces tracked Baghdadi for a significant period of time before luring him in, Atta added.
"Through intelligence work we were able to attract him to a certain area, where he was captured," he said. "This is a heroic action and a major achievement for Iraqi security forces."
Atta didn't give any details about how Iraqi authorities could prove their case against Baghdadi but said more information will be released when the government completes its investigation.
Officials may be using the arrest to try to bolster confidence in Iraq's security forces ahead of an upcoming drawdown in U.S. troops here. There's widespread fear among Iraqis that violence will increase when Americans leave Iraqi cities at the end of June, a timeline mandated by an agreement signed last year between Washington and Baghdad.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki commended the arrest, calling Baghdadi "the head of evil."
"The head of al Qaida in Iraq has fallen into the hands of the heroic security forces," Maliki said in a written statement. "His (acts) were reflected in the bodies of the innocent - children, women and old men alike - in bloody scenes that would shame all humanity."
American officials have said in the past that they think Baghdadi may be a fictional character meant to give a local face to a foreign-led terrorist organization.
Iraqi officials claim that Baghdadi is responsible for countless attacks that helped fuel the country's sectarian war. They said he uses a fake name and that he's an Iraqi.
Even if he's who the Iraqis say he is, he may be easily replaced, however, as a long line of alleged al-Qaida in Iraq leaders appear to have been.
In an interview with al-Arabiya television, Iraq's top government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said he expects al-Qaida to step up attacks in retaliation for Baghdadi's arrest. At the same time, Dabbagh said, his capture has severely diminished the group's strength.
"He was a pillar of al-Qaida in Iraq, and when you take a pillar down, the whole structure is affected," he said.
(Reilly reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star.)