By Mussab Al-Khairalla Reuters
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was killed on Tuesday in an internal fight between insurgents, the Interior Ministry spokesman said, but the U.S. military said it could not confirm the report.
Spokesman Brigadier-General Abdul Kareem Khalaf told Reuters: "We have definite intelligence reports that al Masri was killed today". He said the battle happened near a bridge in the small town of al-Nibayi, north of Baghdad.
Another source in the ministry said Masri had been killed in what he described as "probably score-settling within al Qaeda itself".
Both Khalaf and the ministry source said the authorities did not have Masri's body, but the source added "our people had seen the body".
In February, Interior Ministry sources said Masri had been wounded in a gunbattle north of Baghdad, but those reports turned out not to be true.
Ali al-Dabbagh, spokesman for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government, said the government was conducting further checks.
"Primary information indicates he was killed, but when you have such a senior figure like Masri you have to do further checks, including a DNA test," Dabbagh told Dubai-based al-Arabiya satellite channel in a telephone interview.
U.S. Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Garver, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, said the military was also checking the reports.
"I hope that it is true, but we want to be very careful to make sure," Garver said.
TENSIONS AMONG INSURGENTS
There has been increasing friction between Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and other Sunni Arab insurgent groups, particularly over al Qaeda's indiscriminate killing of civilians in Iraq.
If the reports prove to be true, Masri's death would signal a widening split among insurgents.
Masri, who is also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, assumed the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq after Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. air strike in June 2006.
U.S. and Iraqi officials accuse al Qaeda of trying to tip Iraq into full-scale civil war between Iraq's majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Arabs with a campaign of spectacular car bombs attacks that have killed thousands.
Iraqi officials also blame al Qaeda for destroying a holy Shi'ite shrine in Samarra a year ago, an act that unleashed a surge in sectarian bloodletting.
The U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, said last week that al Qaeda was now "probably public enemy number one" in Iraq. The United States has a $5 million (2.5 million pound) bounty on Masri's head.
Masri, an Egyptian, has been described by the U.S. military as a former close Zarqawi associate who trained in Afghanistan and formed al Qaeda's first cell in Baghdad.
Al Qaeda and local Sunni Arab tribes are engaged in a bitter power struggle in the western province of Anbar, an insurgent stronghold.
(Additional reporting by Dean Yates and Waleed Ibrahim)
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