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CAIRO - The true identity of Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the man said to have succeeded the slain Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, remains an enigma in his reported homeland of Egypt.

"His real name is Yussef al-Dardiri, he is around 38 years old and he comes from Upper Egypt," Montasser al-Zayat, a lawyer and former member of the Islamist group Gamaa Islamiya, told AFP.

But Egyptian security sources insist they have not heard of the name.

"The Egyptian security services have not heard of any Egyptian by this name, but since his name has been released, we are researching and investigating the matter," a security source said.

Diaa Rashwan, an expert on political Islam at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, said he too had not come across the name. "There is no trace of such a name in the Egyptian radical Islamic files," he said.

The US military on Thursday released pictures of the Egyptian who it said was the successor of Zarqawi, who was killed in a US air strike north of Baghdad on June 7.

Coalition forces spokesman Major General William Caldwell said the new leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri (meaning 'the Egyptian' in Arabic), also known as Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Muhajer (meaning 'the immigrant'), was believed to be operating out of Baghdad.

Al-Qaeda, which has not disclosed the new leader's nationality, "on its website has named him as Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, but we believe that he is one and the same", Caldwell told reporters.

According to Zayat, who says he does not know Masri personally, Zarqawi's successor lived in the central Cairo area of Zawyia Hamra before going to Afghanistan in the late 1980s or early 90s, and then on to Iraq via Iran.

Zayat is the main lawyer for the Gamaa Islamiya and Islamic Jihad, two Islamic militant groups which were behind a wave of violent attacks that killed 1,300 people in Egypt during the 1990s.

A government crackdown left the two groups' members killed, behind bars or fleeing the country, while others renounced the use of violence in their campaign for an Islamic state.

About one third of Al-Qaeda's members are believed to be Egyptians, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, the organization's number two and Osama bin Laden's right-hand man.

"The Americans have given details of his past, saying he (al-Masri) joined Islamic Jihad in 1982 and make him out to be one of the founders of Al-Qaeda in Iraq without knowing his real name, which is difficult to believe," says Rashwan.

The photo shown by the US military does not show "the facial features of an Egyptian man but rather a Saudi", according to Rashwan.

"The Americans are eager to establish a non-Iraqi identity for Zarqawi's successor for political reasons," said Rashwan. "They need a symbol of international jihad (holy war) to justify their occupation of Iraq."

Caldwell said Masri was believed to have signed up to militant Islam in 1982 when he joined Egypt's Islamic Jihad, once led by Zawahiri.

Masri met Zarqawi in Afghanistan in 1999, when they were both at Al-Faruq training camp where he became an explosives expert, making him the main car-bomb maker in Iraq, according to Caldwell.

"He eventually made his way back to Iraq after the fall of the Taliban," Caldwell said.

But Zayat said Dardiri's name was not on any Egyptian list because "most of those who worked with Zarqawi in Afghanistan did not have strong ties with Egyptian organizations out there," he told the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat.

And according to Yasser Al-Sirri, an Egyptian dissident and director of the Islamic Observation Center in London, the new Al-Qaeda chief in Iraq is in fact an Iraqi called Abu Hamza al-Baghdadi, another possible alias.

"If confirmed, the choice of an Iraqi would show Al-Qaeda wants to 'Iraqize' the battle, and to keep it going while preserving an international jihadist character," said Sirri.

06/17/2006 12:50 GMT

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