The US military said on Thursday the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq was still very much alive, denying reports by some Iraqi politicians that he had been tracked down and killed.
"We believe he is still alive," US military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson said, dismissing claims by several Iraqi politicians that Abu Ayyub al-Masri and several associates were killed in a US airstrike this week.
Masri, an Egyptian who is also known as Abu Hamza al- Muhajir, assumed the leadership of Al-Qaeda in Iraq after Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in June.
"There was a raid recently where we thought he may have been among those killed, but now we think it is highly unlikely," Johnson said.
"We are going to rule out the possibility altogether by doing DNA tests."
Earlier, a member of parliament close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Hasan al-Senaid, and a second source in the prime minister's office, who did not want to be named, said Masri had been killed in a US assault on a "safe house" in Haditha in western Iraq.
"Two days ago three people were killed in an airstrike on Haditha. Today it became clear from DNA tests that Masri was one of them," Senaid said.
A senior government official said this was "simply not true".
Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said: "It appears that the body ... was checked by US forces and is not that of Abu Ayyub al-Masri".
Another aide to Maliki said the DNA tests were still being conducted on the bodies.
The tests suggested that one of the dead was an Al-Qaeda leader but not Masri, he said.
There was no immediate explanation for the confusion among the officials. Maliki's government is under mounting pressure, especially from Washington, to show progress in ending insurgent and sectarian violence that has killed thousands.
Earlier this month Iraq's National Security Adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, said Masri's "days are numbered" after US and Iraqi forces announced the capture of his deputy and the killing of a close aide.
"We are trying to get closer to him every day and we believe we are doing so," Johnson said.
Al-Qaeda makes up about 5 per cent of Iraq's Sunni Arab insurgency but its suicide bombers have caused some of the worst violence, often killing more than 100 people in a single attack.
The US military accuses the Sunni Islamist group of fuelling the sectarian conflict in Iraq that has pitched Sunnis against Shi'ites and raised fears of all-out civil war.
It says US and Iraqi forces have arrested or killed hundreds of Al-Qaeda militants since the death of Zarqawi, severely disrupting the group's ability to launch attacks.
But despite these successes, bombings and other attacks on Shi'ite civilians blamed on Al-Qaeda continue and US military spokesman Major General William Caldwell said on Wednesday that bombings in Baghdad were at an "all-time high".