Wednesday, May 25, 2005

BAGHDAD — An Internet posting said yesterday that Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, had been wounded and called on supporters to pray for his recovery.

Also yesterday, a car bomb exploded near a Baghdad junior high school for girls, killing six persons, and the military announced that nine American troops were killed in two days of attacks in and around Baghdad.

In Tal Afar, where two car bombs Monday killed at least 20 persons, there were reports that militants were in control and that Shi’ites and Sunnis were fighting in the streets. One police official said the city was experiencing “civil war.” Journalists were blocked from entering the city of 200,000.

The Zarqawi posting’s authenticity could not be verified, but it appeared on a Web site known for carrying prior statements by his group, al Qaeda in Iraq, and other militant groups.

Asked whether the report was true, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, “I don’t know.” Another U.S. official said authorities were considering whether the posting was purposely misleading.

There have been several reports this month that U.S. forces were close to capturing Iraq’s most-wanted terrorist.

The Internet statement, which purportedly was from the group’s media coordinator, Abu Maysarah al-Iraqi, did not say how or when Zarqawi was injured. Al-Iraqi is known to be the group’s media coordinator, but there was no way to confirm that the statement was true or that it was posted by al Qaeda in Iraq.

Zarqawi, a Jordanian, has taken responsibility for attacks on Iraqi civilians and security forces, kidnappings and beheadings of foreigners, and has a $25 million bounty on his head — the same as for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

“Let the near and far know that the injury of our leader is an honor, and a cause to close in on the enemies of God, and a reason to increase the attacks against them,” the statement said.

It ended with prayers for Zarqawi, calling on the nation of Islam to “pray for our Sheik Abu Musab Zarqawi to recover from an injury he suffered for God’s sake.”

Media reports earlier this month said the U.S. military was investigating whether Zarqawi was being treated at hospital in the western city of Ramadi. The reports were never confirmed.

Regardless of the terror leader’s condition, a wave of attacks that began with the formation of an interim government on April 28 continued yesterday with a string of explosions, suicide attacks and drive-by shootings that killed 49 Iraqis.

The nine American military deaths brought the number of U.S. troops killed since Sunday to 14.

The U.S. military said a two-day operation in Baghdad involving more than 2,000 Iraqi soldiers and police had rounded up 428 suspects. But terrorists continued to wreak havoc in the capital.

Six bystanders were killed outside the Dijlah Junior High School for Girls in Alwiyah, a Christian neighborhood of Baghdad, when a suspicious car exploded as bomb disposal experts approached it.

Militants also gunned down two persons and seized control of Tal Afar, a town 50 miles west of the northern city of Mosul, police said yesterday.

Separately, gunmen opened fire on a four-car convoy carrying Shi’ite legislator Salamah al-Khafaji, one of the most prominent women in Iraq’s new parliament. The lawmaker escaped unharmed, but four bodyguards were critically injured.

U.S. forces, meanwhile, announced the capture of two leading militants with links to Zarqawi.

Mohammed Daham Abd Hamadi, leader of the al-Noaman Brigades, was captured in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, on Monday, the military said. His terror cell has taken responsibility for kidnapping Chinese and Turkish citizens who were later freed.

The other militant captured was Mullah Kamel al-Aswadi, described by U.S. forces as the “most-wanted terrorist in north-central Iraq.” The statement said he was captured recently in Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad.

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