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No one's sure if Zarqawi's dead or if it really matters

By wire services
Published May 27, 2005

BAGHDAD - Speculation about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's fate and conflicting claims Thursday over who is running al-Qaida in Iraq suggest confusion or perhaps even a power struggle within Iraq's most lethal terror group.

Who would replace the Jordanian-born militant as leader of the group responsible for multiple bombings, beheadings and assassinations in Iraq is becoming as hot a topic as whether the feared terrorist is actually alive or dead.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said his office believes Zarqawi has been wounded. An Internet statement also said that Zarqawi's terror group, al-Qaida in Iraq, had appointed a deputy to fill in for him.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said his government did not have "accurate information" that Zarqawi was indeed wounded.

"But let's not narrow it down to single person. It's about a phenomenon and its cause," Jaafari said.

Iraq's rampant insurgency, in which thousands have been killed in the past two years, would not be derailed even in the event of Zarqawi's absence, some experts warn.

"The real danger in Iraq is you have more than 50 attacks a day, with some made by al-Zarqawi and 80 percent made by others," said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on radical Islam at Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

"It's not really a problem of who will be the successor," Rashwan said. "He's not a real leader of a real organization, he's a symbol for a kind of network for small Islamic groups."

In trials . . .

MARINE CLEARED IN TWO KILLINGS: A Marine lieutenant accused of murdering two detained Iraqis and hanging a taunting sign over their corpses was cleared of all charges Thursday, a decision the Marine Corps said was in "the best interests" of the officer and the country.

Marine 2nd Lt. Ilario G. Pantano, a Wall Street energy trader who rejoined the military in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, did not deny shooting the suspected insurgents 60 times or hanging the sign that displayed a corps slogan: "No better friend, no worse enemy."

Pantano, 33, a New York native who now holds a training position at Camp Lejeune, N.C., asserted that he had killed the Iraqis in self-defense after the unarmed men made threatening moves toward him during an April 2004 search of their car near Mahmudiyah, 15 miles south of Baghdad.

SOLDIER ACQUITTED: An Army staff sergeant was acquitted of murder Thursday in the death of an unarmed Iraqi he said he shot to save a fellow soldier.

A jury of four soldiers and two officers deliberated at Fort Hood, Texas, for less than three hours before finding Staff Sgt. Shane Werst not guilty of premeditated murder. He had faced a maximum of life in prison without parole.

Before the jury announced the verdict, the judge found Werst innocent of obstruction of justice, so the jury's verdict on that charge was not revealed. Col. Theodore Dixon said he decided to rule on that charge.

Sunnis say arrests of rich aim to terrorize them

BAGHDAD - Sunni businessmen said Thursday night that five or six wealthy Sunnis had been arrested over the past two weeks. One businessman, Saad al-Bunnia, the head of the Iraqi Bankers Association and the chairman of Warka Bank, an Iraqi bank, was taken from his home in Baghdad on Sunday by Iraqi and American soldiers, who also seized $6-million from a safe in his home.

"This is the start of a movement to terrorize Sunni businessmen," said Hathal Aga, the bank's vice chairman.

[Last modified May 27, 2005, 00:41:05]

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