Mystery has always surrounded Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the country's deadliest terrorist. But the latest puzzler is whether he's still in the picture. After an initial report on an Islamic website asked Muslims to "pray for the recovery of our Sheik Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi from an injury he suffered for the sake of God," reports flew rapidly, many contradictory: he had been wounded by gunfire in the lungs, or shrapnel hit his stomach and legs; he was hurt in a clash with U.S. forces a month ago and spotted at a hospital in Ramadi, or he was injured a week ago and was out of the country. Some suggested he had already died; a later report insisted he was "in good health and running the jihad himself." Officials in Iraq and Washington expressed hope that the man blamed for many of the kidnappings, assassinations and the latest wave of bombings that have left more than 600 dead in the past month might be history.
But would al-Zarqawi's demise do much to quell the rampaging insurgency? "When you start taking out large numbers of their experienced leadership, you significantly damage the effectiveness of the organization," says House Intelligence Committee chairman Peter Hoekstra. A Western diplomat in Baghdad says al-Zarqawi's death would be a "very important thing" and would hurt funding and recruiting, especially for the "high-end suicide bombings" usually attributed to non-Iraqis. But others point out that the foreign fighters al-Zarqawi is said to command seem to represent only a small percentage of the rebels in Iraq. The bulk of the insurgency, made up of disaffected Iraqi Sunnis, runs itself. "We face a thinking, adaptive enemy," says Marine Commandant General Michael Hagee, "and they have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of manpower." Says a foreign military commander familiar with the region: "There are hundreds to replace al-Zarqawi. Getting him will mean bragging rights, and that's about it."