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Zarqawi successor unknown to U.S. intel

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor

WASHINGTON, June 12 (UPI) -- President Bush declared Monday that the man named to succeed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq would be "on our list to bring to justice," but U.S. officials said they were still uncertain of his real identity.

A statement posted on the Internet said the terror group had appointed Abu Hamza al-Muhajir to replace Zarqawi, slain last week by the U.S. military.

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The statement, issued in the name of Iraq's Mujahedin Shura Council -- a shadowy umbrella for jihadi groups fighting the U.S. military there -- said the new leader was an experienced veteran, but gave no other details. It was posted on a site the council has used before, and appears authentic.

Asked for his reaction to the announcement by reporters at Camp David, Md., where he was huddled with cabinet colleagues and national security staff for an Iraq strategy session, President Bush said, "I think the successor to Zarqawi is going to be on our list to bring to justice." Aides said al-Masri had not come up by name in discussions, but that the impact of Zarqawi's removal and the issue of his succession had been on the agenda.

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White House spokesman Dan Bartlett said the issue had arisen in the context of what changes it might portend for the alliance of jihadi groups fighting the U.S. military in Iraq with "other groups trying to take advantage of what some have viewed (as a possible) leadership vacuum (left) by Zarqawi," he said.

Officials from three different U.S. counter-terrorism and intelligence agencies -- who all spoke to United Press International on condition of anonymity -- said al-Muhajir was a nom de guerre not immediately familiar to U.S. intelligence, though one cautioned that, "the traps are still being run," on whether it was a known but unfamiliar alias.

Another said it was "possible but highly unlikely" that the individual might be completely unknown to U.S. intelligence.

The working hypotheses at present, said a third, was that "it is a previously unknown alias for a known al-Qaida member." The official said the name Muhajir, which means "emigrant" in Arabic, was often used by Egyptians. The U.S. military said last week that they expected an Egyptian known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri to succeed Zarqawi.

One other possible successor, whose name was mentioned over the weekend by analysts following discussions on jihadi Web forums, was Zarqawi's immediate deputy, Abu Abdelrahman al-Iraqi.

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Following Monday's announcement, the three officials said it was unclear whether the U.S. military had simply been wrong about the succession, or whether al-Muhajir might be an alias for al-Masri. Indeed, one suggested the possibility had to be considered that al-Muhajir might not be a real person at all, but merely a name in which the leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq would issue statements.

Analysts say the identity of Zarqawi's successor will give important clues to the future direction of the movement he came to symbolize.

For instance, the name suggests that the new leader is not Iraqi, unlike Zarqawi's deputy and the name used by the spokesman for the Mujahedin Shura Council, Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi.

A U.S. intelligence official said the formation of the council was seen in some quarters as an effort to put a more Iraqi face on the jihad there, noting that it coincided with a brief period when Zarqawi refrained from public audio or video releases.

But in common with the other two officials, he acknowledged a continuing, generalized uncertainty about the exact impact of Zarqawi's removal.

Daniel Byman, an analyst at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, said that uncertainty was due in part to differing views about exactly how unified the movement Zarqawi led was. "The assessments (of expert observers) about how much control Zarqawi really had varied from 'He was instrumental,' to 'He was just the guy we knew about, but not especially important,'" Byman told UPI.

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A U.S. counter-terrorist official told UPI that al-Qaida in Iraq was "fairly decentralized" and that Zarqawi had "laid out strategy (for the whole movement) but depended on regional emirs to conduct operations on a day-to-day basis."

But he said the "street credibility and charisma" that shaped Zarqawi's relationships with other leading militants across the country would not be easily duplicated. "They are scurrying to deal with his loss," the official said. "They may have identified a successor but it is not going to be easy to replace someone with those attributes."

The official suggested that using a new alias might be a way of trying to protect the new leader, given the reports that Jordanian intelligence had penetrated the organization. "They could be figuring it might not be prudent to disseminate the real name" yet, he said.

"Anytime you have leadership change in a violent underground organization there's the potential for splits," added Byman when asked about Bartlett's remarks.

But he cautioned the news might not be all good, saying Zarqawi's leadership "may have at times been counter-productive" for the jihadi movement, because of his "sectarianism and exceptionally violent tactics."

"It's possible a better leader may emerge" to succeed Zarqawi, he said.

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