BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq’s defense and interior ministers on Thursday said the government has information that Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has been wounded.
“We have information in the Ministry of Interior that al-Zarqawi was wounded, but we don’t know how seriously,” 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.”
An Internet statement claimed this week that al-Zarqawi had been injured in recent fighting. The statement, posted on a Web site known for carrying extremist material, could not be authenticated. The statement also asked for Muslims to pray for the al-Qaida in Iraq chief.
While the claims that he was hurt hadn't been verified, U.S. officials told NBC News they were beginning to think the assertion may be true. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the military had fresh reports that al-Zarqawi may have been wounded during Operation Matador, the U.S. assault on terrorist targets in western Iraq two weeks ago.
Early Thursday, meanwhile, a statement appeared on the same Web site and signed in the name of the militant group said a deputy had been appointed to take the lead until al-Zarqawi returns.
However, only minutes later, a statement posted on the same site disputed that assertion.
It was impossible to verify either statement.
The back-and-forth could be a sign of confusion or competition within al-Qaida of Iraq.
“The leaders met after the injury of our sheik, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi ... and decided to appoint a deputy to take the lead until the return of our sheik,” the first statement said.
It identified Abu Hafs al-Gerni as “deputy of the holy warriors.”
But a rival denial was posted a short time later, signed off by Abu Maysara al-Iraqi, the name usually associated with al-Qaida in Iraq postings when a name is indicated.
“We deny all that has been said about appointing the so-called Abu Hafs or anyone by any other name,” it said, reminding that al-Qaida in the past has said to believe postings only in his name.
A respected pan-Arab newspaper reported Thursday that several candidates were jockeying to succeed al-Zarqawi, none of whom it identified as Abu Hafs al-Gerni, but one being Abu Maysara al-Iraqi — the man who issued Wednesday’s denial that a deputy had been appointed.
Al Hayat quoted multiple unidentified sources of various names, saying that sources in Jordan close to al-Zarqawi, including a former Iraqi officer, told the newspaper Abu Maysara al-Iraqi and Abu al-Dardaa al-Iraqi, an al-Qaida operative in Baghdad, were two potential successors.
Wednesday’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.”
Video: The war after al-Zarqawi 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-Qaida 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, said al-Gerni was a non-Iraqi and a key lieutenant to al-Zarqawi.
The latest furor over al-Zarqawi, who has a $25 million bounty on his head for coordinating some of the deadliest attacks in Iraq, began Tuesday when an Internet statement called on Muslims to pray for his life, followed by competing statements on his health and whereabouts.
The mystery deepened Wednesday after reports that two Arab doctors in another country were treating al-Zarqawi for a bullet wound to his lung.
Speculation about statements
The amount of speculation about al-Zarqawi is unusual both in size and scope.
“It makes me wonder if al-Zarqawi’s injury is severe enough that they are afraid to lie about it, and are instead just trying to minimize the impact,” said Washington-based counterterrorism expert Evan Kohlmann. “In other words, they ‘steal the thunder’ from the Western media ... a crude form of defusing a potential public relations disaster.”
It also could be a ploy to make al-Zarqawi more popular among Islamic zealots who follow him and his ally, Osama bin Laden.
A return to the battlefield after being injured by U.S. forces could make al-Zarqawi look like “superman,” Gen. Wafiq al-Samarie, the Iraqi presidential adviser for security affairs, speculated on Al-Jazeera TV.
The attention focused on his reputed injury indicates how crucial al-Zarqawi has become to Iraq’s insurgency. He initially was regarded as a bin Laden rival until the al-Qaida leader anointed him his representative in Iraq last year.
Al-Zarqawi, who carries a $25 million bounty like bin Laden, is believed to have personally executed foreign hostages and has shown no compunction in killing Muslims who don’t adhere to his severe interpretation of Islam. He also encourages bloody attacks against anyone deemed a U.S. collaborator.
NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.