BAGHDAD — Abu Omar al Baghdadi is a household name here. The shadowy figure surfaced less than a year ago and declared an Islamic state in Sunni and mixed areas of Iraq. The Egyptian leader of al Qaida in Iraq pledged allegiance to him, and al Qaida fighters declared their loyalty to him.
On at least three occasions, the Iraqi government claimed it killed the elusive leader known only by his name and his voice.
On Wednesday, however, the top U.S. military official spokesman said that Baghdadi, whose name translates as the father of Omar from Baghdad, and his Islamic State of Iraq group, do not exist.
The Iraqi to whom even al Qaida paid homage was a creation of the leader of al Qaida in Iraq, Abu Ayub al Masri, and that group's most senior Iraqi leader, Khalid Abdul-Fattah Dawoud Mahmoud al Mashhadani, Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner said.
He said Mashhadani, whom U.S. forces in Mosul nabbed on July 4, briefed his captors in detail about "Baghdadi" — how he was created and used over the past year.
The reason for inventing "Baghdadi" was to put an Iraqi face on a foreign-led group, Bergner said. Al Qaida's leadership is believed to be mainly foreign while its fighters are largely Iraqi.
"Baghdadi," whose tribal name, al Hashemi, denoted that he was a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, was portrayed as the perfect candidate to lead Islamic State of Iraq.
"Baghdadi" spoke to the world for nine months in defiant Internet statements denouncing U.S. troops and the government in Iraq. "From the military point of view, one of the (enemy) devils was right in saying that if Afghanistan was a school of terror, then Iraq is a university of terrorism," "Baghdadi" said in April.
All of this was a scam, Bergner said.
Mashhadani was the conduit between Masri in Iraq and al Qaida's top leader, Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahri, Bergner said. Mashhadani spilled his secrets because he was frustrated by al Qaida's foreign leadership, he added.
Since its formation, al Qaida in Iraq has been led by foreigners. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian and the first leader of al Qaida in Iraq, was killed last year by U.S. forces.
"He was cooperative from the moment we picked him up," Rear Adm. Greg Smith, another military spokesman, said of Mashhadani. "He had become disenchanted with the foreign leadership and how they were running al Qaida in Iraq."
Smith said Mashhadani's comments hadn't been independently verified.
Mashhadani told his American captors that he and Masri concocted the Baghdadi character. Mashhadani used an actor named Abu Abdullah al Naima to recite Baghdadi's statements and declare the Islamic State of Iraq, Bergner said.
"Islamic State of Iraq leaders cloak themselves in Iraq nationalism, but in fact their purpose is to subjugate the Iraqi people under a foreign-led terrorist organization that wants to impose a Taliban-like ideology on Iraqis," Bergner said.
Bergner quoted Mashhadani as saying: "'Al Masri started overpowering us and acted on his own accord by controlling the distribution of funding. Al Masri also controlled the content of al Baghdadi's publications.'"
Over the past nine months Baghdadi grew into a feared figure in Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shiite regions across the nation. No one knew what he looked like, but Sunnis in areas from the northern province of Diyala to the western province of Anbar were forced to pledge allegiance to him in their mosques or face death.
Fighters who identified themselves as soldiers of the Islamic State seized policemen in Anbar, took them to isolated locations and forced them to swear they wouldn't return to the security forces.
The military's announcement Wednesday came on the heels of a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that warned that the Iraq war has strengthened al Qaida and that the group remains a grave danger six years into the "war on terror" and four years into the Iraq war. The report predicted that the al Qaida offshoot in Iraq would probably play a role in any attack on U.S. soil because it is the most "capable."
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution, said the U.S. military's announcement showed how little is known about al Qaida leadership in Iraq.
"The U.S. and the (Iraq Prime Minister Nouri) Maliki government have not seemed to have a handle on this guy," he said. "At the beginning of May they said he was dead; they killed him. Two weeks ago he issues an ultimatum to the Iranians, and now he doesn't exist."
The man has always been elusive, and there were suspicions that he might not be real, Riedel said. But one man's statement that Baghdadi doesn't exist can't alone determine the figure is not real, he said.
"If it's true that al Qaida in Iraq has been using a very effective nom de guerre," he said, "it seems to me it took an awful long time to figure that out, which doesn't say much about their handle on Al Qaida in Iraq."
Some Iraqi residents in Fallujah, once an al Qaida stronghold, dismissed the announcement as "American propaganda." None had ever seen Abu Omar al Baghdadi.
An Iraqi teacher who asked not to be named for fear of retribution said the announcement was the U.S. military's attempt to boost Iraqi and global support for the war.
"The timing of this declaration is propaganda for their war against al Qaida," the teacher said. "It's an American attempt to reduce the pressure from inside the United State to withdraw from Iraq and to persuade the international community that the military presence is necessary."
(McClatchy special correspondent Mahdi Dulaimy contributed from Fallujah. )