Iraq's acting interior minister has denied that the top leader of the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq network has been arrested, noting that the detained man is a much lower-level operative of the terrorist organization.
In an exclusive interview with al-Jazeera news network on Saturday, Adnan al-Assadi said the suspect was believed to be a section commander in charge of an area, stretching from the northern outskirts of the capital Baghdad to the town of Taji, situated 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Baghdad.
"Anyone from al-Qaeda is important … but he is not a very senior al-Qaeda leader," he said.
Assadi also said that al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq were directing operations in Syria, and that a US refusal to sell his country advanced surveillance equipment was hampering efforts to fight the organization.
He added that while Iraqi forces have considerably weakened the Islamic State of Iraq network, it was still believed to maintain up to 2,000 or 3,000 members in Iraq, and its leaders were directing al-Qaeda operations across the border in Syria.
"The Islamic State of Iraq - the link to al-Qaeda - has responsibility for Syria. They send fighters from Iraq to Syria, the leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq controls Syria and they go back and forth between the two countries,” Assadi said.
The acting Iraqi interior minister further noted that al-Qaeda's hideouts in al-Anbar, Nineveh, and Salahuddin provinces were in areas too large and remote for Iraqi forces to patrol effectively.
"If you have two million soldiers you couldn't cover it. It needs to be covered with satellite and aerial surveillance which we do not have now," Assadi said.
He also said Iraqi counter-terrorism efforts have suffered from the loss of US aerial surveillance in and around the capital, where al-Qaeda is also believed to be regrouping.
"We have tried to persuade US forces to leave their air space surveillance in Baghdad and surrounding areas but they refused. We have tried to acquire this system from them through any means and at any price and still American forces refused…because they say it is advanced technology,” Assadi said.
Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces announced on December 3 that they had arrested the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq in a raid in northern Baghdad. They also alleged that the man in custody was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was named head of the Islamic State of Iraq two years ago.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq is a shadowy group that was once allegedly led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi was reportedly killed in June 2006.
According to US government and military officials, the group was then led by Ayyub al-Masri, who was killed along with Abu Omar al-Baghdadi -- another leader of the group -- in a joint Iraqi-US operation in Salahuddin province in April 2010.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been blamed for some of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the country since the US-led invasion in March 2003.