Al-Qaida’s leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had fled the country after being seriously injured in a U.S. missile attack, a British newspaper reported on Sunday, quoting a senior commander of the Iraqi insurgency.
Al-Zarqawi has shrapnel lodged in his chest and may have been moved to Iran, The Sunday Times newspaper reported, adding his supporters may try to move him on to another country for an operation.
The paper quoted an unnamed insurgency commander as saying the Jordanian-born militant was wounded three weeks ago when a U.S. missile hit his convoy near the northwestern Iraqi city of al Qaim.
“Shrapnel went in between the right shoulder and his chest, ripped it open and is still stuck there,” the commander said, adding a second piece of shrapnel penetrated Zarqawi’s chest but exited from his back.
“There was concern about spinal injuries,” the commander said. “But his ability to move eliminated that fear.”
The Sunday Times said Zarqawi, accused of masterminding many of the worst insurgent attacks in Iraq, was carried from his vehicle after the missile strike and given basic first aid in a hideout.
When he became delirious with fever four days later he was taken to hospital in the city of Ramadi, 68 miles west of Baghdad, it said. The paper did not say when the commander was speaking but said the source had proved reliable in the past.
Web posting claims Zarqawi OK
The report contradicted a statement from Zarqawi’s group posted on the Internet on Friday, which said he was still leading operations in Iraq.
“Our Sheikh is in good health and is running the jihad (holy war) himself and has been overseeing the details of operations up to the time this statement was prepared,” a group spokesman said in the statement.
On Tuesday, al Qaida said Zarqawi was wounded “in the path of God” but did not say how, when or where. It urged Muslims to pray for his recovery.
Then, on Thursday, an Internet statement in al Qaida's name said the group had named a deputy to fill in for Zarqawi, but a later statement attributed to the group spokesman swiftly denied it.
On the same day, Iraq’s interior minister said he had confirmation Zarqawi had been wounded, but the country’s prime minister later said there was no firm news.
Washington has offered a $25 million bounty for Zarqawi, its top foe in Iraq.
His group is blamed for many of the suicide bombings and ambushes by mostly Sunni Arab guerrillas, which have killed more than 600 Iraqis in the last four weeks and raised fears Iraq could slide towards civil war.