In Iraq, Three "Deaths" But One Body

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Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP / Getty

U.S. Major General William Caldwell, right, speaks during a press conference in Baghdad where it was announced that the U.S. military had killed Al-Qaeda in Iraq's "information minister," identified as Muharib Abdulatif al-Juburi.

For the second time this week, the Iraqi government has announced the death of a top terrorist — only to be greeted with skepticism. The earlier claim that tribal fighters had killed al-Qaeda's Iraq military leader, Abu Ayub al-Masri, has yet to be verified. But Thursday's announcement by Iraq's Interior Ministry of the killing of al-Qaeda's political/spiritual leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, was accompanied by claims that the terrorist's body was in the government's possession. But U.S. military spokesman Maj.-Gen. William Caldwell has brushed off the claim that al-Baghdadi had been killed by U.S. and Iraqi troops. He was also unable to confirm the death of al-Masri.

Instead, Caldwell announced the death of a third al-Qaeda leader — the organization's "information minister," Muharib Abdel-Latif al-Jubouri, who is throught to have orchestrated a number of high-profile kidnappings, including that of journalist Jill Carroll.

Iraqi state TV showed images of a disfigured body in an open wooden coffin, claiming it was al-Baghdadi. But Caldwell said he was not aware that the top terrorist had been killed. "If that person even exists ... we have nobody in our possession, or know of anybody that does either, alive or dead that is going through any kind of testing or analysis at this point," Caldwell said in a press briefing in Baghdad.

The confusion stems in part from Iraqi government's well-deserved reputation for jumping to conclusions: it has a habit of hastily announcing the death of al-Qaeda leaders and then retracting its claims. It doesn't help that al-Qaeda is an incredibly secretive organization, with a fluid command structure that makes it almost impossible to know who's really in charge.

Although al-Baghdadi was named al-Qaeda's leader shortly after the death last year of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, little is known about him. There are no verifiable pictures of al-Baghdadi, and the name is made up. Many Iraqis wonder if there's a real identity behind that alias, which may explain Caldwell's phrasing, "If that person even exists."

Not that it matters. If al-Baghdadi does exist, and whether or not he is alive, he is a titular leader with no real power. His "promotion" last year was a PR exercise, designed to give al-Qaeda an Iraqi face — under the Jordanian al-Zarqawi, the group was dominated by foreign fighters. The publicity stunt failed, however. Although al-Qaeda nominally proclaims fealty to al-Baghdadi as the ruler of the "Islamic State," it is no secret that the group's real leader is al-Masri, an Egyptian.

If al-Baghdadi and al-Masri have both been killed this week, that would certainly be a big blow to al-Qaeda. But it would not be a coup de grace. Al-Qaeda has shrugged off the death of even more important figures, including al-Zarqawi. At best, there will be a short pause while the group recalibrates itself under a new leader.