U.S. Says Zarqawi May Be Ill

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 5, 2005

AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq, May 4 -- The U.S. military is examining reports that insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi was present last week at a hospital in Anbar province and the possibility that he may be ill or wounded, officials said Wednesday.

U.S. officials gave no details as to why they believe Zarqawi may be sick or injured. But U.S. military authorities were quoted this month as saying that Zarqawi had left medical information about himself on a laptop computer that was seized Feb. 20 in his closest known call with American pursuers. When his car was pulled over at a checkpoint outside Ramadi, Zarqawi fled on foot, leaving behind the laptop, photos of himself and contacts, officials said.

It was not clear whether suspicions about his health were linked to the seizure of the computer or grew directly out of Zarqawi's reported presence last week at a hospital in Ramadi, the capital of restive Anbar province. Zarqawi's group asserted in a written statement posted at two mosques, one of them in Ramadi, that the Jordanian-born militant was at the hospital last Thursday during a raid by U.S. forces but that the Americans missed him.

A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, confirmed Wednesday that officials had "received a tip that there were terrorists in and around the hospital in Ramadi."

U.S. and Iraqi forces "did go to the hospital to act upon the information," Boylan said. He did not confirm that Zarqawi was the target of the raid. The forces left without detaining anyone but were reviewing information from the operation, Boylan said.

Zarqawi is the most-wanted man in Iraq, and the United States has offered a $25 million reward for information leading to his death or capture. Zarqawi is believed by U.S. officials to lead a network of insurgent cells that has been behind many violent attacks in Iraq. American officials say Zarqawi is linked to some of last year's hostage beheadings and such attacks as the military-style assault last month on U.S. Marines at Abu Ghraib prison.

Known sightings of Zarqawi in recent months have all been in Anbar province. The district's tens of thousands of square miles are largely guarded by a scaled-back American force, with few Iraqi troops stationed outside Ramadi. Wide-open spaces and a generally porous border with Syria give militants room to roam and hide.

Military officials said this week that reported sightings of Zarqawi include one several weeks or months ago in the small town of Haqlaniyah, where he was believed to have given a sermon at a blue-domed hilltop mosque.

There were reports that Zarqawi was at the main hospital in Ramadi both on Wednesday and Thursday of last week. The Wednesday sighting was reported by Islamic newspapers. Separately, several people at the hospital said they had seen a group of armed men arrive at the hospital Thursday, followed by the Americans.

"They searched us one by one, and they checked our IDs," said Saad Safi, a patient at the hospital at the time of the U.S. raid. "The occupation forces searched the whole hospital but did not find anything. We hadn't expected them to come search for Zarqawi."

In a written statement Friday, Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq group said Americans searched all the rooms down to the air-conditioning ducts but "were not able to find Sheik Abu Musab Zarqawi, even though he was inside the hospital."

The statement did not say why Zarqawi would have been at the hospital. He has not been known to have health problems or to have been injured. An Islamic Web site reportedly made a point of saying this year that Zarqawi was in good health.

Riyadh Abu Dhiba, an insurgent in an Iraqi militant group, said Thursday that Zarqawi had been visiting his top aide, who was hurt in an unspecified clash. Abu Dhiba, who belongs to a group called Mohammed's Army, said the Zarqawi aide is a foreigner.

The insurgent said Zarqawi at times has brought doctors to his hiding places to care for the injured. "Zarqawi is not ill at all," Abu Dhiba said.

Iraqi authorities say a suspected top lieutenant of Zarqawi's, Talib Mikhlif Arsan Walman Dulaymi, was captured in February. The government said Dulaymi moved money and equipment around the country for Zarqawi and arranged for safe houses.

Zarqawi's reported near-capture in February raised hope among U.S. military officials of apprehending him. Zarqawi is believed to move frequently to evade American forces.

U.S. military officials said capturing Zarqawi would not end the insurgency. Some say that eliminating the lieutenants who carry out operations for him is more important. But removing Zarqawi from the scene would be seen as a setback to insurgents in general, they said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company