BAGHDAD, Iraq – Sympathizers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi rushed Friday to swear allegiance to his successor on Islamic militant Web sites, but it was still unclear who that would be.
Several militant Web forums were flooded with messages of well-wishers pledging to "hear and obey" the man they claimed was the new "emir," or leader, of Al Qaeda in Iraq: Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi.
Al-Iraqi has appeared in past statements from al-Zarqawi's group as the "deputy emir." His name was on a statement issued Thursday by the group confirming al-Zarqawi's death in a U.S. airstrike and vowing to continue on his path of jihad, or holy war.
But there was confusion over whether he was still alive. The U.S. military said the Wednesday evening airstrike that killed al-Zarqawi also killed his "spiritual adviser," a man U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell identified as "Abdul-Rahman" or "Sheik Abdul-Rahman."
It was not known if "Abdul-Rahman" and "Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi" were the same person. But there are suggestions they were two different people. Caldwell said the slain man was not Iraqi — while al-Iraqi's name suggests that he is.
Evan Kohlmann, a New York-based consultant, said he believed al-Iraqi would become the new leader and that the "Abdul-Rahman" killed in the airstrike was a different person.
"It is possible that two guys have the same name," said Kohlmann, whose organization, globalterroralert.com, tracks the hierarchy of Al Qaeda in Iraq and other militant groups.
He said al-Iraqi has long been known as an Al Qaeda military leader, not a spiritual leader.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military has put forward another name. Caldwell identified the "most logical" al-Zarqawi successor as "Abu al-Masri."
Caldwell could likely be referring to Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who was identified in a February 2005 announcement by U.S. Central Command as a close associate of al-Zarqawi. Central Command put a $50,000 reward on al-Masri's head.
Caldwell said al-Masri was believed to have come to Iraq in 2002 after training in Afghanistan. His mission, Caldwell said, was to create an Al Qaeda cell in Baghdad. Al-Masri was believed to be an expert at constructing roadside bombs, the leading cause of U.S. military casualties in Iraq.
American military officials did not immediately respond to requests for clarification on Abdul-Rahman and al-Masri.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has not put out a statement naming a successor to al-Zarqawi. The group issues "official" messages on militant Web forums that are clearly marked as coming from the organization. Though confirming any statements put out on the Internet is difficult, there are consistent markers — such as repeated names — that suggest they are authentic.
In the message put out Thursday, al-Iraqi still held the title "deputy emir," suggesting the group had not confirmed he was the new leader.
But sympathizers who often write on the Web forums appeared convinced he was.
"After the appointment of Sheik Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, we must all swear allegiance to him," read one posting, signed by a participant calling himself The Syrian Lion. "May God grant us someone even better than Sheik Abu Musab."
On several Web sites, dozens posted messages with the traditional Islamic oath of allegiance to the emir, promising to "hear and obey."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Thursday it made no real difference who steps in as the terrorist group's leader.
"Whenever there is a new Zarqawi, we will kill him," al-Maliki said.
But it may not be that easy. It took the U.S. and Iraqi military three years to get al-Zarqawi, and there is little likelihood that Al Qaeda in Iraq will crumble now that its leader is gone.
"The death of our leaders is life for us," said the Al Qaeda in Iraq statement Thursday. "It will only increase our persistence in continuing the holy war so that the word of God will be supreme."
The Taliban's fugitive supreme leader mourned the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and vowed Friday to keep fighting in Afghanistan, according to a statement.
Mullah Omar, who has been hiding since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, said he was "deeply sad over the martyrdom" of al-Zarqawi but believed his death from a U.S. airstrike Wednesday would not weaken the resistance in Iraq.
"It is the people's resistance, and every youth can become al-Zarqawi," the Pashto-language statement said. "I want to assure the Muslims across the world that we will not stop our struggle against crusaders in Afghanistan."
The authenticity of the statement could not be confirmed independently. It was forwarded to an Associated Press reporter in Pakistan in an e-mail from Dr. Mohammed Hanif, who claims to speak on behalf of the Taliban. His exact ties to the hard-line militia's leadership is unclear.
The e-mail included a scanned copy of the original statement, purportedly signed by Omar.
The reclusive Omar has been at large since the Taliban regime was ousted by U.S.-led forces five years ago for harboring Usama bin Laden. Omar is believed to be hiding in southern Afghanistan or in the rugged Pakistan-Afghan border region.
The statement came as the speaker of Pakistan's parliament, Chaudhry Ameer Hussain, rejected a request by Islamist lawmakers Friday to offer prayers for al-Zarqawi.
Two Pakistani lawmakers from an anti-U.S. coalition argued that since al-Zarqawi and his associates died fighting invading forces, the legislature should offer prayers. But Hussain did not allow it, saying prayers could only be offered for lawmakers or close relatives.
Some extremists writing in Internet chat rooms said al-Zarqawi died the death of a true Muslim hero.
"Don't be happy Bush and small Abdullah," a person identified as Abu-Hajar wrote Thursday, addressing President Bush and Jordan's King Abdullah II, whose country helped track down al-Zarqawi. "The slaughterers are coming."
On another Web site, Ahmed Hamad wrote: "Oh God, make heaven celebrate his arrival there."
Extremist and moderate Arabs use chat rooms because they have few other outlets to express themselves candidly. Many post their contributions under fake names for fear of retribution from either governments or Internet users with different views.
Hours after al-Zarqawi's death was made public, supporters posted his pictures alongside eulogies and messages in flowery language that claimed he had earned a place next to the Prophet Muhammad.
"Oh Allah, reunite us with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the great paradise alongside Prophet Muhammad," wrote Umm Ma'athe on one Islamist Web site.
"Farewell, oh hero," said an unsigned poem. "We hope to meet you in ... a paradise filled with rivers and sweetness/And beautiful virgins that beckon to us in a unique voice."