Insurgent Leader Zarqawi Injured, Web Site Reports

A Web site that says it represents al Qaeda in Iraq reports that insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has been wounded. Also, the U.S. military begins a new western offensive. The Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer discusses the latest developments in Iraq.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Some of the latest clues about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi come from people who claim to speak for him. According to a Web site that says it represents al-Qaeda in Iraq, he's been wounded. The Jordanian-born militant is described by Americans as Osama bin Laden's chief operator in Iraq and the most wanted man in the country. A man described as a Zarqawi aide gave some more information about him to The Washington Post, and joining us now is Post bureau chief Ellen Knickmeyer.

And, Ellen, first, who is this aide to Zarqawi and what did he say?

Ms. ELLEN KNICKMEYER (The Washington Post): Well, we talked to some of the fighters and some of the higher-ranking people with Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq group after the Web site came out and they said that Zarqawi was shot somewhere between the shoulder and the chest in what Lieutenant Abu Karrar said was an ambush Saturday to Sunday by US and Iraqi forces.

INSKEEP: And they said the location of this ambush, somewhere around Ramadi, which is in western Iraq, in the province that's caused the most trouble for the Americans, and that surprised me. Why would people associated with Zarqawi be willing to say approximately where he is or at least where he was?

Ms. KNICKMEYER: Well, I guess that was where it happened, but we don't know where he--they claim he is right now. They say that he's in a safe place being treated by foreign doctors right now. And, you know, this is a message that, for whatever reason, al-Qaeda in Iraq has chosen to put out, and it's a consistent one, but just because it's consistent doesn't necessarily mean that that's actually what's happened to Zarqawi.

INSKEEP: How can you feel confident that this person who represents himself as an aide to Zarqawi is who he says he is and that what he says is true?

Ms. KNICKMEYER: We have contacts with insurgents. I mean, the journalists, some of whom have grown up in these towns, know who are the insurgents and know who the other people are. And we know that Zarqawi's people are operating in that area. The people that we're talking to from the fighters to the other officers, they're all putting out a consistent message.

INSKEEP: So according to Zarqawi's people, in any event, how seriously wounded is he?

Ms. KNICKMEYER: They said he lost consciousness a couple of times after his wound. They say that he is helping his lieutenant pick out a successor in case he dies.

INSKEEP: Is the name of some successor known?

Ms. KNICKMEYER: What we were hearing was that there were four possible people that were being considered. Three of them were Arab and one of them was Iraqi. I don't know that they've come forward with any name of new people, the person they claim is going to succeed him.

INSKEEP: Now this is a man that Americans have focused on extensively. And when you talk about a successor, it does raise the question of what would happen to the Iraqi insurgency if Zarqawi were out of the picture.

Ms. KNICKMEYER: The American military says that while he's, like, the poster child of the insurgency, if you have it, that--I mean, it's like a hydra-headed insurgency, and if he dies that doesn't at all mean that their fight is over.

INSKEEP: Ellen, at the same time this news about Zarqawi has come out, the US military has begun another offensive, we're told, in western Iraq. And this is a piece of countryside that you know well because you reported on the last US military offensive a few weeks ago there. What do you know about what's happening in that part of the country?

Ms. KNICKMEYER: This morning there was a new offensive that seems to target the town of Haditha. It's in an area along the Euphrates River where US troops have met resistance before and they've come under attack. And the US military believes that foreign fighters, in particular, are operating all along the Euphrates River and using these towns as kind of a channel for money and for fighters and for arms, and it sounds like they've just kind of cordoned off the town and they're going house to house seeing what they're going to roust up.

INSKEEP: You reported that there was evidence that insurgents were able to escape some villages before the US military got there in the last offensive. Is there any indication that the US military learned from that experience?

Ms. KNICKMEYER: The local people did say that a lot of the foreign fighters slipped out through Syria, that they had enough advanced notice. And also some of them said that some of the Marines lifted a blocking position that a lot of foreign fighters ran out. The fact that they're--the Marines are going back so quickly after just a week, this tells me that they're trying to stay on the offensive.

INSKEEP: Ellen Knickmeyer is a reporter for The Washington Post. She's in Baghdad.

Ellen, thanks very much.

Ms. KNICKMEYER: You're welcome.

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