BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government presented the first image of the alleged leader of an al-Qaida front group Tuesday in a bid to prove the right suspect was in custody despite skepticism that he even exists.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called Abu Omar al-Baghdadi "the head of evil" and accused him of trying to incite a sectarian civil war and working with other insurgents who remained loyal to Saddam Hussein.
"This criminal had close relations with the former regime and maintained a sinister alliance with Saddam's followers," he said in a statement.
Authorities described Baghdadi's capture, which was announced last week, as a major setback for Sunni insurgents trying to intensify attacks after a relative lull.
But the capture or death of other high-ranking insurgent figures in the past — including former al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 — has done little to slow the bombings.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he could not confirm Baghdadi's capture and described as "fairly accurate" a statement that every day that goes by without a confirmation increases the suspicion that it's not him.
The identity of Baghdadi has frequently been questioned.
The U.S. military has even said Baghdadi could be a fictitious character used to give an Iraqi face to an organization dominated by foreign al-Qaida fighters. Even if he does exist, it was unclear what his role is in the terror group — whether he really runs it or whether he's a figurehead.
Iraqi officials also have reported Baghdadi's arrest or killing before, only to later say they were wrong.
But an Iraqi military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said the government was certain the man arrested Thursday was Baghdadi.
Authorities hailed the purported arrest as a major victory for Iraqi forces reeling from accusations that they are not prepared to take over their own security in the wake of a series of high-profile attacks.