Al-Qa'ida names Jordanian as its new leader in Iraq

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The Independent Online

A new leader has been appointed to head the al-Qa'ida organisation in Iraq, in replacement of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was killed in a US air strike last week, an Islamic militant website said yesterday.

The website, often used by al-Qa'ida to post statements, identified the new chief merely by the pseudonym of Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, a name which has not thus far featured on US lists of wanted terrorists. Al-Muhajer means "immigrant" in Arabic, suggesting that like Zarqawi, he is not an Iraqi.

The news came as George Bush, the US President, and his advisers began a two-day Iraq strategy session at Camp David aimed at building on last week's two big successes - the elimination of Zarqawi and completion of the new government in Baghdad.

However, questions persisted about the exact circumstances of the death of Iraq's most wanted man, despite the finding by a US autopsy that Zarqawi had been killed by shock waves from the blast. "The cause of death was close-based primary blast injury of the lung," Steve Jones, a US military doctor, said.

But that announcement will not put to rest the doubts that emerged after the Pentagon reversed course and said that Zarqawi had not been killed instantly by the two 500lb bombs that flattened his safe house last Wednesday.

The US military now says that he survived for 52 minutes after the blast, and for 24 minutes after the arrival of the first US soldiers on the scene. DNA analysis has confirmed the corpse was that of Zarqawi.

Meanwhile General George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, described as "baloney" claims by an Iraqi witness that a man resembling Zarqawi had been beaten by US troops after the bombing. Other US spokesmen said his body had been treated with complete respect.

Experts say that if confirmed, the choice of Muhajer, a foreigner, could mean he will pursue Zarqawi's efforts to foment violence outside Iraq. But the rest is a mystery - above all the relations between the local al-Qa'ida leadership and indigenous Iraqi insurgents, which were said to be tense under Zarqawi, and links between the new man and the al-Qa'ida high command of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.