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Uncertain reports of Iraqi al-Qaeda leader's death

Iraqi government officials said Tuesday they have unconfirmed reports the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq has been killed by Sunni tribesmen.

Conflicting reports from Iraq have made it difficult to determine whether the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, has been killed.

Iraqi chief government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Tuesday that intelligence information confirmed al-Masri was killed by Sunni tribesman. Al-Dabbagh said that DNA tests will be done, but refused to say whether security forces had the body.

Iraqi officials appear to have different storiesabout where al-Masri was killed.

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh told the Associated Press al-Masri was believed to have been killed Monday in an area north of Baghdad.

"Preliminary reports said he was killed yesterday in Taji area in a battle involving a couple of insurgent groups, possibly some tribal people who have problems with al-Qaeda," said Saleh.

ButIraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Brig.-Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf told Reuters the militant was killed near the small town of al-Nibayi, also north of Baghdad.

Iraqi officials have released similar reports in the past, only to acknowledge later they were inaccurate.

Al-Masri alive, claims insurgent groups

Meanwhile, an umbrella organization of insurgent groups denies al-Masri had been killed, releasing a statement on the internet that he is "alive and he is still fighting the enemy of God."

American officials said they are investigating the reports.

"We want to be very careful before we confirm or deny anything like that," said U.S. command spokesman Lt.-Col. Christopher Garver.

The U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, cautioned that al-Masri's death would not "in any way bring to end al-Qaeda activities in Iraq."

A number of Sunni groups have reportedly split from the predominantly Sunni al-Qaeda in Iraq because of its widespread killing of civilians and thedrive to impose a strict brand of Islam.

American and Iraqi officials have accused al-Qaeda militants of striking rival Shia targets in an effortto push Iraq into a full-scale civil war.

An Egyptian militant, al-Masri took over command of al-Qaeda in Iraq one year ago following the death of former leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He was reportedly endorsed by Osama bin Laden.

The United States has a $5 million bounty on al-Masri's head.

With files from the Associated Press

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