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Iraq Transition

Al-Zarqawi's successor already an enigma

Military, intelligence officials differ on identity of new leader
U.S. officials are trying to identify the successor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed last week.



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Abu Hamza al-Muhajer

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A week after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, U.S. military and intelligence don't have a concrete answer as to who his successor is -- or if he even exists.

On Monday, five days after al Qaeda in Iraq leader al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Baquba, statements were published on Islamist Web sites naming Abu Hamza al-Muhajer as the group's new leader.

The Pentagon on Wednesday identified al-Muhajer as an Egyptian-born terrorist who trained in Afghanistan, but U.S. counterterrorism officials questioned whether there is such a person. (Watch why the military believes it knows who the new leader of al Qaeda in Iraq is -- 5:41)

Analysts suggested that al-Muhajer, a name that means "the immigrant" in Arabic, was a foreigner like the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi.

On Tuesday a statement attributed to al-Muhajer threatened attacks against U.S. forces and Iraqi government officials in Baghdad's Green Zone, the fortified compound that houses the Iraqi government headquarters, embassies and a U.S. military base.

In the Web posting, al-Muhajer also pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, saying: "All of us are under your banner. With God's permission, victory is near."

U.S. military officials say they're convinced al-Muhajer is actually Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian associate of al-Zarqawi.

No reason was given for the assumption, but military officials have said that they confiscated a "treasure trove" of intelligence on al Qaeda in Iraq, including computers and information from captured insurgents, the night before and during the attack on al-Zarqawi. (Watch how most troops haven't even heard of al-Masri -- 2:08)

Al-Masri and al-Zarqawi met at the al-Farouk training camp in Afghanistan in 2001 or 2002, said Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.

On Thursday, Caldwell told reporters that al-Masri was a likely candidate to succeed al-Zarqawi.

"Probably Abu al-Masri, if you had to pick somebody, would be the person that is going to try to occupy the position that Zarqawi had," Caldwell said.

He added that al-Masri has been the subject of "intense focus" by U.S. commanders since the airstrike on al-Zarqawi.

"We know that before al-Zarqawi's death, he used Ayyub al-Masri as his sort of second man in terms of running operations here in Iraq," Caldwell said.

In briefings Friday, Caldwell said al-Masri "came to Iraq before Zarqawi did, probably located somewhere around the Baghdad area sometime in around 2003, established probably the first al Qaeda in Iraq cell here in the Baghdad area, and that they continued a very close relationship since that time."

Al-Masri also has had communications with bin Laden's top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Caldwell told reporters, adding that "anything beyond that would be in operational channels and probably not something we should talk about."

Al-Masri also has been involved with making roadside bombs in Iraq, Caldwell said.

However, U.S. counterterrorism officials say they aren't sure "Abu Hamza al-Muhajer" is al-Masri. He could be someone else, or al Qaeda in Iraq could be using a "placeholder name" while it decides on a new leader, one official said.

Saudi security officials also have been unable to identify al-Muhajer, and they say they have never heard his name before. He could be hiding his real name even from fellow militants, the Saudi security officials said.

Iraqi troops say they have not heard of him, either.

U.S. military officials say they're debating whether to disseminate more information about al-Masri because they are concerned it could help create another terrorist icon like al-Zarqawi.

U.S. intelligence has enough information on al-Masri to recognize him, Brig. Gen. Carter Ham told reporters at the Pentagon, but he would not say if the military has photographs of him.

Intelligence officials will evaluate whether al-Masri "is, in fact, exercising the leadership role," Ham said. "It's not unlikely that there may be some reluctance of individuals to step forward because of some of the successes that the Iraqi and U.S. and other coalition forces have had against that organization.

"Those individuals operate at some individual peril," the general said.

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