May 26, 2005 9:17 pm US/Eastern
BAGHDAD (CBS) Speculation about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s fate and conflicting claims Thursday over who is running al Qaeda in Iraq suggest confusion or perhaps even a power struggle within Iraq’s most lethal terror group.
Who could replace the Jordanian-born militant at the head of the group responsible for multiple bombings, beheadings and assassinations in Iraq is becoming as hot a topic as whether the feared terrorist is actually alive or dead.
Speculation over the group’s future leadership has soared since Tuesday’s Internet "announcement" in the name of al Qaeda in Iraq’s media coordinator, Abu Maysara al-Iraqi, that al-Zarqawi had been wounded and that Muslims should pray for him.
But one scenario being tossed about, reports CBS News Correspondent David Martin, is that al-Zarqawi is being pushed aside in an internal terrorist group power struggle. But the Pentagon officials are not ruling out the possibility that he is actually injured.
Any number of firefights between insurgents and American forces could have injured Zarqawi, Martin reports. The last time U.S. forces had Zarqawi in their sights and knew it was in February when troops were pursuing his pickup truck while a spy drone tracked him from overhead.
But a wound to the leader — or even death — might not cause such leadership mayhem for the terrorist group as some are speculating.
"While Zarqawi is an important character, his organization is bigger than just one guy," said Army Brig. Gen. Carter Ham.
Another web statement Thursday said a Saudi Arabian militant, known as Abu Hafs al-Gerni, had been made the group’s interim leader — or "deputy of the holy warriors" — until al-Zarqawi recovered from his wounds.
It said al-Gerni "was known for carrying out the hardest operations, and our sheik would choose him and his group for the tough operations."
That statement was signed in the name of Abu Doujanah al-Tunisi of al Qaeda in Iraq’s media committee — an unfamiliar name from past statements.
Shortly after, a rival statement appeared on the same Internet site again in Abu Maysara al-Iraqi’s name to reject suggestions that a replacement had been named for al-Zarqawi.
None of the claims could be authenticated, but the continuing flurry of Internet statements and public comments over al-Zarqawi’s fate and al Qaeda’s future is lending weight to suspicions that change is in the offing in the leadership of Iraq’s rampant insurgency.
On Thursday afternoon, U.S. officials couldn’t confirm reports of Zarqawi’s death or wounding. However, one U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the military’s most credible sources lean toward the idea that Zarqawi is injured or wounded, not dead.
The respected pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat reported Thursday that several candidates were gearing up to claim al-Zarqawi’s throne, none of whom were identified as al-Gerni. One candidate the paper did name was Abu Maysara al-Iraqi, the man who was quick to rule out al-Gerni’s appointment.
Al Hayat quoted multiple unidentified sources, saying figures in Jordan close to al-Zarqawi, including a former Iraqi officer, claimed two potential successors were Abu Maysara al-Iraqi and Abu al-Dardaa al-Iraqi, an al Qaeda operative in Baghdad.
Two Middle East experts on Islamic militants told The Associated Press that al-Gerni, a Saudi, has been al-Zarqawi’s military adviser and is the emir, or prince — as senior commanders are called — of al Qaeda in Iraq’s military committee. The experts spoke on condition they not be further identified.
Other experts believe such a list of likely candidates suggests Iraq’s rampant insurgency, which has killed thousands in the past two years, would easily continue on in al-Zarqawi’s absence.
"The real danger in Iraq is you have more than 50 attacks a day, with some made by al-Zarqawi and 80 percent made by others, in my opinion by professional people, not amateurs," said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on radical Islam at Egypt’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
"It’s not really a problem of who will be the successor," Rashwan said. "He’s not a real leader of a real organization, he’s a symbol for a kind of network for small Islamic groups which share tactics and ideology."
Heightened attention has surrounded al-Zarqawi in recent weeks, with a U.S. general claiming he may have personally chaired a meeting of his chief lieutenants in Syria a month ago aimed at ramping up suicide bombings and other attacks in Iraq.
The latest furor over al-Zarqawi began Tuesday when an Internet statement called on Muslims to pray for his life, followed by competing statements on his health and whereabouts.
Earlier this month, Iraqi security forces raided a Baghdad hospital after getting a tip that the master of disguise was receiving medical attention. Police came up with thin air.
It’s worth remembering, Martin reports, that when Zarqawi first arrived in Baghdad before the war started, U.S. intelligence believed he had gone there for treatment after losing a leg in Afghanistan.
That, the military now knows, was wrong.
U.S. forces launched a weeklong offensive in the country’s far west to root out al-Zarqawi supporters using the arid desert region to hide, stage terrorist attacks and crisscross between Iraq and Syria along ancient smuggling routes.
Army Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of Task Force Olympia who directed thousands of troops during 13 months of combat operations in al-Zarqawi’s former stomping ground of northern Iraq, expects al-Zarqawi’s killing or capture will lead to "some decision-making as to who would step up and take his place."
"My only caution is we ought not expect that when that happens that the organization will crumble and will cease to exist," Ham told a Pentagon briefing. "The organization has proven to be somewhat resilient."