CAIRO, Egypt – The Internet and Baghdad streets are teeming with statements about terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search). One says he's being treated outside Iraq for gunshot wounds to the lung. Another calls on Muslims to pray for him, indicating his condition may be dire.
Only one thing is sure: None is confirmed.
The latest furor over al-Zarqawi began Tuesday when an Internet (search) statement called on Muslims to pray for his life, followed by competing statements on his health and whereabouts.
The mystery deepened Wednesday after reports that two Arab doctors in another country were treating al-Zarqawi, chief of Al Qaeda in Iraq (search) and wanted for some of the deadliest attacks in the country.
None of the Internet postings and rumors have been confirmed, but the amount of speculation about the Jordanian-born militant is unusual both in size and scope.
"It makes me wonder if al-Zarqawi's injury is severe enough that they are afraid to lie about it, and are instead just trying to minimalize the impact," said Washington-based counterterrorism expert Evan Kohlmann. "In other words, they 'steal the thunder' from the Western media ... a crude form of defusing a potential public relations disaster."
It also could be a ploy to make al-Zarqawi more popular among Islamic zealots who follow him and his mentor, Usama bin Laden.
A return to the battlefield after being injured by U.S. forces could make al-Zarqawi look like "superman," Gen. Wafiq al-Samarie, the Iraqi presidential adviser for security affairs, speculated on Al-Jazeera TV.
The attention focused on his reputed injury indicates how crucial al-Zarqawi has become to Iraq's insurgency. He initially was regarded as a bin Laden rival until the Al Qaeda leader anointed him his representative in Iraq last year.
Al-Zarqawi, who carries a $25 million bounty like bin Laden, is believed to have personally executed foreign hostages and has shown no compunction in killing Muslims who don't adhere to his hard-line interpretation of Islam. He also encourages bloody attacks against anyone deemed a U.S. collaborator.
Speculation over his condition heightened when an Internet statement said two Arab doctors in another country were treating him. After being posted on another Web site, it was denounced as being unauthorized and false.
The statement from someone identified only as al-Khalidi said the information came from "brothers close to the holy warriors in Iraq."
The spokesman for Iraq's largest Shiite political group said it had unconfirmed information that al-Zarqawi was dead.
"He was killed in western Iraq," said Haitham al-Husseini, an aide to Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. "But we need more time to be able to confirm."
Hani el-Sibaie, who runs a London-based Islamic affairs research center, said calls to pray for al-Zarqawi meant he was seriously ill. "It is obvious that he is dying and his days are numbered," he said from London.
Recent U.S. and Iraqi raids on hospitals in Baghdad and Ramadi, west of the capital, have fueled the rumors.