Update: US confirms. See Update 1.
The US captured a senior figure for al-Qaeda in Iraq on July 4th, the BBC reports this morning. Khaled Mashhadani told investigators that he acted as a conduit between the real AQI leader and senior al-Qaeda leadership outside of Iraq:
US forces say they have arrested a senior member of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group accused of being behind some of Iraq's deadliest violence.
The man was named as Khaled Mashhadani. He was captured earlier in July in the northern city of Mosul, officials said.
US military officials said he had told interrogators that the group's supposed leader, Omar al-Baghdadi, was a front.
Mashhadani may give the US enough information to target the real leader of AQI, if it isn't Omar al-Baghdadi. Interestingly, some think that Khaled Mashhadini is Omar al-Baghdadi. Nibras Kazimi gave a run-down on al-Baghdadi four months ago:
This is what the Iraqi government told us: ‘Abu Omar al-Baghdadi’ is the pseudonym for Khalid al-Mashhadani, who also goes by the name ‘Abu Zaid’.
This is what we know from following the bitter recriminations among jihadists on internet discussion forums: ‘Abu Omar al-Baghdadi’ was arrested under the Ba’athist regime as a Salafist (radical Islamist) activist who had broken into a school and defaced Saddam Hussein’s pictures and the Ba’athist slogans at the school.
This is what Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq claims about his pedigree: ‘Abu Omar al-Baghdadi’ is descended from the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Al-Hussein bin Ali, which would make him a Husseinite from the Hashemite clan that is part of the tribe of Quraysh.
This is the best I could do to tie all this up together, according to my sources: al-Baghdadi’s full name is Khalid Khalil Ibrahim al-Mashhadani. He is in his early 40s, and is known as ‘Abu Zaid’. He had been a Salafist under Saddam, and was briefly detained then over some unknown infraction.
This looks like it could be Zarqawi's successor. I'll update as more details become available.
UPDATE I: The US is now saying that Mashhadani is the "most senior Iraqi" in AQI. Mashhadani used a ruse to keep his identity from being known as the leader of AQI:
In Web postings, the Islamic State of Iraq has identified its leader as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, with al-Masri as minister of war. There are no known photos of al-Baghdadi.
Bergner said al-Mashhadani had told interrogators that al-Baghdadi is a "fictional role" created by al-Masri and that an actor is used for audio recordings of speeches posted on the Web.
"In his words, the Islamic State of Iraq is a front organization that masks the foreign influence and leadership within al-Qaida in Iraq in an attempt to put an Iraqi face on the leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq," Bergner said.
Mashhadani started off as a militant in Ansar al-Sunna, then merged with al-Qaeda in 2004. Zarqawi made him the media minister of AQI, which apparently doesn't include actually making speeches for himself.
"Baghdadi, who has never been seen, is an actor. To make Baghdadi seem real, Masri swore allegiance to him, knowing he was fictitious," he said.
"Mashhadani confirmed that Masri and al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders he surrounds himself with are foreigners," he said. ...
"He is considered a conduit between Masri, Bin Laden and Zawahiri," Gen Bergner said, referring to the Saudi- and Egyptian-born founders of al-Qaeda, who are thought to be hiding in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
UPDATE III: Today on CQ Radio, I'll interview the Heritage Foundation's Mackenzie Eaglen on this subject, as well as the NIE and the progress in Iraq. We'll be on at 3 pm ET/2 pm CT, so don't miss it!