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Two may take spot on most-wanted list

Published June 9, 2006

Now that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has been killed, who's next on the U.S. government's most-wanted list?

Besides the obvious target of Osama bin Laden, two names have emerged from the pool of insurgents in Iraq: Abdul Rahman al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi assistant to Zarqawi, and Abu al-Masri, an Egyptian militant in Iraq.

"I'm hearing that al-Baghdadi may well be the new Zarqawi,'' said Vince Cannistraro, a top CIA counter-intelligence official under President Bill Clinton.

"Wouldn't surprise me," said terrorism expert Robert Pape, who directs the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism at the University of Chicago.

But Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said at a Baghdad news conference today that "it would probably be al-Masri, if you had to pick someone.''

Intelligence officials believe that Masri trained in Afghanistan and started an al-Qaida cell in Iraq after the war began in March 2003, said Caldwell. Little is known about Baghdadi.

But other military and intelligence officials warned that it is not clear whose - if anyone's - face might emerge as the face of terrorism in Iraq now that Zarqawi is dead. Zarqawi was notorious for promoting his cause in lurid videos, but his successors, some experts say, may not choose to be so visible.

"It will probably be members of a loosely organized group who don't put any one person at the forefront," said Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Department of Defense spokesman.

With Zarqawi out of the picture, he said, the military is targeting groups rather than a particular person.

Beside Zarqawi's group - al-Qaida in Iraq - two other Iraqi insurgent organizations top more than one list of those who kill U.S. troops and Iraqi security officers in Iraq : Partisans of the Sunna Army and the Islamic Army in Iraq.

These two groups lead a Department of Defense list as well as a list compiled by Pape at the University of Chicago.

But the U.S. government also has an international list of "most wanted terrorists" outside of Iraq, which should keep terrorist hunters busy. This list begins with al-Qaida leader bin Laden and his chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

But it also includes lesser known names such as Abdelkarim al-Nasser, a Saudi who planned the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen and one Saudi citizen. And, two Egyptian men - Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah and Muhsin Atwah - who masterminded the simultaneous 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, which killed a total of 235 people.

But some U.S. experts in international terrorism warn against establishing a rigid hierarchy of terrorists, either outside or inside Iraq.

"All we can say is that the violence will continue to come from groups that center on different things - religion, nationalism, the desire for power - but they all agree on one fundamental thing,'' said Pape. "They want us gone. They do not want our sustained combat presence in Iraq.''

Zarqawi's death would not stop the violence in the short term, but it could affect it in the long term, said Pape.

"It could be an opportunity for the president to declare success and begin a slow, phased troop withdrawal, which could, in turn, stop the reason for the insurgent violence,'' he said.

But Venable of the Defense Department worried that any troop withdrawal would leave the U.S. soldiers who remain in Iraq "very vulnerable." "Zarqawi or no Zarqawi, we must establish an Iraq that can govern and protect itself before we leave,'' he said.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 9, 2006, 06:30:19]

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