US admits it has no leads in hunt for 'wounded' Zarqawi

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The Independent Online

American forces have had no good leads on the whereabouts of the rebel leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi since finding his laptop computer in February, but believe that reports of his wounding suggest his group may be in disarray.

American forces have had no good leads on the whereabouts of the rebel leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi since finding his laptop computer in February, but believe that reports of his wounding suggest his group may be in disarray.

US troops seized the Jordanian militant's driver, an aide and his laptop computer - which included personal photos saved under "My Pictures" - at a roadblock near Ramadi nearly three months ago and believed they were closing in on Zarqawi.

Since then there have been reports that the militant leader, whose group claims to have carried out many of the deadliest attacks in Iraq, was wounded during fighting near Ramadi. Unconfirmed reports said he was nearing death.

But a senior US military official played down any suggestion yesterday that the net was tightening on America's most-wanted man after Osama bin Laden, even if there are indications, he said, that Zarqawi's group is in turmoil.

"I can say categorically that I am not aware of anybody having a definite sighting of Zarqawi at any particular place at any particular time," the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told a group of reporters at a briefing in Baghdad. "I can't tell you that we saw him on March 27, or that we saw him in Ramadi hospital ...

"There are a lot of Zarqawi sightings going on and it's a case of which one do you roll to and why is it that that tip is more valuable than the last one," he said, suggesting that many tips on Zarqawi's whereabouts prove to be non-starters.

Speculation that Zarqawi, for whom Washington is offering a $25m (£13.8m) bounty, may be running out of luck reached fever pitch when an Islamist website reported late last month that he had been wounded in fighting.

Another Islamist website then reported that the leadership of his group had met and nominated a successor to run operations until Zarqawi recovered. That posting was immediately denied in another internet message posted by someone who more frequently posts for Zarqawi. Then, earlier this week, an audio tape was released on the internet containing a message from the elusive militant.

The recording, which CIA officials have said was probably made by Zarqawi, was addressed to Bin Laden and reassured the al-Qa'ida leader the Jordanian was fit and well and back commanding operations in Iraq.

The flurry of rumours, denials and reassurances - there were even reports Zarqawi had fled to Iran to receive treatment for shrapnel and bullet wounds - has left US commanders believing all may not be well within Zarqawi's group.

"When I look at these websites ... I see symptoms of needing to rally the troops. I see symptoms of discord," the official said, mimicking the contradictory nature of their reports: "'Here's his successor', 'No, he's not his successor', 'He's really injured with shrapnel in his lung', 'I'm okay, Bin Laden'. What does this all mean?" he asked.

"For all of their media savvy, it certainly seems like there's confusion in the ranks when I look at the volume of information that they are putting out there."

Despite the lack of hard leads on Zarqawi's whereabouts, the official said efforts to capture him remained intense. "We're keeping pressure up across the country on the whole cell structure," he said. "His removal from the global war on terror and his removal from Iraq would be a positive development." REUTERS

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