By Ellen Knickmeyer and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
BAGHDAD, May 24 -- Insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, the most-wanted man in Iraq, was shot and wounded in a weekend ambush by U.S. and Iraqi forces, according to one of his lieutenants and a statement attributed to his organization, al Qaeda in Iraq.
The accounts of Zarqawi's injury came on a day when the U.S. military reported the deaths of nine Americans. Four soldiers were killed by a bombing and gunfire in Baghdad on Tuesday, four were killed on Monday by an explosive device in Haswah, south of the capital, and a Marine was killed by mortar or rocket fire Monday at a base in western Iraq.
The Zarqawi lieutenant, who identified himself as Abu Karrar, said in an interview Tuesday that Zarqawi's aides were helping him choose someone to lead the group if he died.
Abu Karrar and fighters in Zarqawi's group said the insurgent leader had been shot between his shoulder and his chest during fighting Saturday and Sunday around the western city of Ramadi. A top Zarqawi aide and several Arab fighters were killed in the clash, Abu Karrar said.
The U.S. military said it had no immediate confirmation that Zarqawi had been wounded or that such a fight had occurred. Some Iraqis and Americans said they suspected the reports were a ruse, either to boost Zarqawi's popularity or to trick his pursuers.
Zarqawi's injury was first reported in a statement, attributed to al Qaeda in Iraq, posted on a Web site used by the organization in the past. The statement urged Muslims to "pray for the recovery of our Sheik Abu Musab Zarqawi from an injury he suffered for the sake of God."
"Let those far and near know that the injury of our leader is an honor, and a means to close in on enemies of God, and a reason to increase attacks against them," it said. The statement, purportedly issued by the information section of al Qaeda in Iraq, did not describe the injury or how it was inflicted.
Other Iraqis welcomed the news wholeheartedly.
"We are very happy to hear that Zarqawi is wounded, and by the will of God we will hear the news of his death at the hands of the Iraqi army," said Mohammed Hakim, a spokesman in Najaf for Ayatollah Mohammed Saeed Hakim, a spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiite Muslims. Shiites have frequently been targeted by insurgent attacks, including one last week in which one of the ayatollah's aides was shot to death.
While insurgents gave no proof of the Zarqawi report, it raised the prospect of one of the top goals of U.S. officials and Iraqi government leaders: incapacitation or death of the most feared figure in Iraq's insurgency. A glowering photograph of Zarqawi, a Jordanian, has been the face of foreign insurgents in Iraq. A video released on the Internet last year showed what it said was a masked Zarqawi slicing off a hostage's head -- one of several such executions for which his group has asserted responsibility.
Several previous reports have had Zarqawi wounded or ill, noted Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a military spokesman in Baghdad. "We don't know whether it's fact or fiction," Boylan said of Tuesday night's claim. "He continues to be our No. 1 target."
Asked about the reports, State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said in Washington, "I don't know."
Zarqawi was in a safe place and receiving treatment from doctors, said Abu Karrar, a nom de guerre for the Zarqawi lieutenant in Ramadi. Abu Karrar said Zarqawi had lost consciousness twice since he had been wounded.
Top members of Zarqawi's group were working with him to choose his successor from four candidates -- three Arabs and an Iraqi, Abu Karrar said.
"I heard it's a game, but it's the truth," Abu Karrar said, alluding to speculation that the report of Zarqawi's injury was fabricated.
The U.S. military has said several Zarqawi associates have been captured in recent months, including a driver caught in February in western Iraq. The military described the incident as the closest it had come to apprehending Zarqawi, who escaped on foot but left behind his laptop computer and tens of thousands of dollars in cash.
Additionally, Muhammad Daham Abd Hamadi, a suspected Zarqawi associate who was believed to have helped lead the insurgency in Ramadi, was captured Monday in Baghdad, the U.S. military reported Tuesday.
Zarqawi's wound, if confirmed, might have been inflicted in a clash that resulted from recently gathered intelligence, Wafeeq Samarrae, an adviser to President Jalal Talabani, told Arabic-language TV. "In any case, there's lots of possibilities," Samarrae said. "Maybe he posted this statement to say he is wounded, and then he posts another statement to say that he is treated and fine, and he is like Superman."
Military spokesmen have said repeatedly that although capturing or killing Zarqawi would be a major accomplishment, it would not necessarily end the insurgency.
[In anti-insurgent operations on Wednesday, about 1,000 U.S. Marines, sailors and soldiers encircled the Euphrates River city of Haditha in western Anbar province, killing at least three insurgents after launching the second major offensive in the region in less than a month, an official said, according to the Associated Press.]
Meanwhile, two back-to-back bombings Monday in the northern city of Tall Afar unleashed vigilante violence and retaliatory killings. Witness and police accounts said at least 14 people had been killed in retaliatory attacks Tuesday after Monday's bombings killed 30.
An AP special correspondent reported seeing civilians with assault rifles manning checkpoints in Shiite neighborhoods of the city on Tuesday, and residents and authorities spoke of Sunni checkpoints elsewhere in the city.
"Shiites' armed men are walking around looking for Sunnis to kill," police Col. Salih Jameel Sultan said.
However, Moqtada Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric based in the southern city of Najaf, said that the fighting in Tall Afar involved two tribes and that news media were exaggerating its sectarian nature. Sadr said he would send aides to the city.
Gunmen attacked a convoy carrying Shiite political leaders to a meeting with Sadr on Tuesday, and acting Oil Minister Ahmed Chalabi was among the officials who escaped injury. Four bodyguards were wounded.
In addition, a car bombing near a girls' school in Baghdad on Tuesday killed six adults, Iraqi authorities said.
In the capital, the committee charged with drafting Iraq's permanent constitution selected leaders from the country's three main groups Tuesday. Humam Hamoudi, a cleric who is a member of the Shiite coalition that holds a majority in the National Assembly, was named chairman. Fouad Masoum, an ethnic Kurd, and Adnan Janabi, a Sunni Arab, were named deputy chairmen.
The 55-member committee includes only two Sunni Arabs, an imbalance Hamoudi pledged would soon be redressed.
Composing and ratifying a constitution is the next hurdle in Iraq's political transformation. Less than three months remains before an Aug. 15 deadline for the completion of a draft under the terms of the Transitional Administrative Law, the country's temporary constitution. The document must then be ratified by the National Assembly and in a referendum of Iraqi voters.
Among the most contentious issues for the committee to address, members said, would be the extent of autonomy for regions such as the Kurdish-dominated north and the role of Islamic law in determining Iraqi statutes.
Sarhan reported from Najaf. Correspondent Jonathan Finer and special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Bassam Sebti in Baghdad and Dlovan Brwari in Tall Afar contributed to this report.