Confusion reigns over Saddam deputy

Confusion reigned on Monday over the fate of Saddam Hussein’s long-time right-hand man, following conflicting claims by Iraqi government and security officials over the capture of Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri.

Meanwhile, a Turkish truck driver was reportedly released after his employer promised to stop its business in Iraq, but there was still no word on the whereabouts of two French reporters detained by an Islamist group.

Iraqi officials first said on Sunday that 62-year-old Ibrahim, who is riddled with cancer, had been captured after a fierce battle in his hometown of Ad-Dawr between government forces and Saddam loyalists had left 70 dead or wounded.

But Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s office later backtracked, saying DNA testing was being carried out on a detainee who may or may not be Saddam’s former number two.

Adding to the confusion, a Health Ministry official said it was not aware of any DNA tests, adding that no casualties had been reported in the past 48 hours from the province, which includes Ad-Dawr.

”We are not aware of any DNA tests and if such tests were being carried out, we would have been informed because they have to be performed by the Health Ministry,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

After officials on Sunday rushed to trumpet Ibrahim’s capture as a glorious achievement for Iraq’s fledgling security apparatus, not one of them was able to confirm his detention on Monday.

Officials had said on Sunday that a massive assault was launched by Iraqi national guards with United States military backing to capture Ibrahim as he was leaving a clinic in Ad-Dawr where he received a blood transfusion as part of his leukaemia treatment.

But an AFP reporter in Ad-Dawr on Monday said doctors at the small clinic claimed they did not have the sufficient equipment to perform transfusions, while national guards posted in the area denied any fighting ever occurred.

US commanders also declined to confirm that the suspected insurgent financier they had sought for so long was in custody at last as boasted by their Iraqi counterparts and denied any of their troops had been involved in an assault.

It was the national guard commander for the nearby city of Tikrit who announced that the former number two had been apprehended, but his immediate superior — Major General Ahmed Khalaf Salman, who commands the whole of north-central Iraq — later disavowed his subordinate’s account.

”Our forces did not take part in any operation and did not capture Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri and we do not have any information concerning the subject,” he said.

Previous claims of Ibrahim’s capture later turned out to be unsubstantiated.

Only al-Qaeda’s alleged Iraq commander, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, is more sought-after than Ibrahim, who has had a $10-million bounty on his head since last November.

The claims made by Iraqi officials came as the country’s security forces were undertaking their toughest operations to date against the insurgency that has plagued the country and prevented any economic recovery.

After several deadly clashes across the country between Iraqi forces and militants, police and national guards on Monday were surrounding the office of rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the holy city of Najaf.

Sheikh Ahmed Shaibani, a top al-Sadr aide in Najaf, said the troops were trying to raid the office but insisted they would only be allowed in with an authorisation from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Following the end last month of a bloody stand-off around Najaf’s Imam Ali Shrine between US troops and al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia, the Iraqi government accused the firebrand cleric’s movement of killing and torturing scores of its opponents.

But recent raids in the radical Sunni heartland where two French reporters were captured on August raised fears that a stepped-up crackdown on militants could harm the pair’s chances of being released.

In Iraq, a senior Muslim cleric said a raid in the town of Latifiya on Saturday had ”disrupted the process of their release”, but that he had issued a fatwa, or a religious ruling, calling for their immediate freedom.

However, a Turkish driver who had been kidnapped by an Iraqi militant group has been released, a senior Turkish diplomat said.

The abduction of the driver, Medhat Chiwi, was announced two days ago by a group calling itself the ”Islamic Resistance Movement — Noman Brigades”.

His release came after his Kuwaiti employer promised to cease all its activities in Iraq.

However, the fate of French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, kidnapped by the Islamic Army of Iraq on August 20, remained unknown. — Sapa-AFP

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