Iraq's most lethal insurgent group appears to be facing a leadership crisis amid conflicting reports about the fate of its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search), and whether a Saudi militant has been named to stand in for him.
Iraq's interior and defense ministers said Thursday they have information that al-Zarqawi has been wounded — apparent confirmation of recent rumors that the Jordanian-born terrorist leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq (search) was injured. But the officials said they did not know how severe the injury might be.
Meanwhile, a host of sometimes-dueling statements posted by militants on Web sites made it clear there could be confusion within the group itself — or perhaps even a leadership struggle — over al-Zarqawi's status.
None of the statements could be independently verified, but many of them were posted on a Web site known as a clearinghouse for al-Zarqawi, thus increasing their chances of being credible.
The first Internet statement, on Tuesday, claimed that al-Zarqawi had been wounded and asked Muslims to pray for him.
A second, on Thursday, signed in the name of Abu Doujanah al-Tunisi of the media committee of Al Qaeda in Iraq — an unfamiliar name from past statements — said an interim leader had been appointed to stand in for al-Zarqawi because of his injury.
The statement said the new leader would be Abu Hafs al-Gerni (search), "deputy of the holy warriors."
Then a third Web posting, later Thursday, disputed the claim that a deputy had been appointed. That statement was posted in the name of the person who usually handles the group's Web site claims, Abu Maysara al-Iraqi (search).
The authenticity of none of the statements could be verified.
But the back-and-forth on the same Web site, known as a clearinghouse of Islamic militant material, could be a sign of confusion or even political competition within Al Qaeda of Iraq.
It follows speculation about al-Zarqawi that has been unusual in size and scope.
On Thursday, Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said during a news conference: "We are not sure whether he is dead or not but we are sure that he is injured."
Iraqi Defense Minister Saadoun al-Duleimi also said al-Zarqawi had been wounded. When asked how he knew, he said: "It is my job."
Al Hayat, a respected pan-Arab newspaper, reported Thursday that several candidates were jockeying to succeed al-Zarqawi, none of whom it identified as al-Gerni. But one candidate the paper did name was Abu Maysara al-Iraqi — the man who issued Thursday's denial that a deputy had been appointed.
Al Hayat quoted multiple unidentified sources, saying that sources in Jordan close to al-Zarqawi, including a former Iraqi officer, told the newspaper that Abu Maysara al-Iraqi and Abu al-Dardaa al-Iraqi, an Al Qaeda operative in Baghdad, were two potential successors.
Thursday's first statement said al-Gerni "was known for carrying out the hardest operations, and our sheik would choose him and his group for the tough operations."
Middle East experts on Islamic militants told The Associated Press that al-Gerni is a Saudi who has been al-Zarqawi's military adviser and is the emir, or prince — as senior commanders are called — of the military committee of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The two experts spoke on condition they not be further identified.
An aide to Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, head of Iraq's largest political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (search), said al-Gerni was a non-Iraqi and a key lieutenant to al-Zarqawi.
"We are not sure 100 percent that al-Zarqawi is dead, and we can't consider this step as a confirmation for his killing," said Haitham al-Hussaini, director of al-Hakim's office.
"According to our intelligence, this al-Gerni is well known to us as one of al-Zarqawi's top aides in Iraq who has an Arab nationality," al-Hussaini said without elaborating on which country al-Gerni came from.