A Web site statement posted Thursday and signed in the name of al-Qaida in Iraq said the militant group has appointed an interim leader for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who purportedly has been wounded. But a subsequent posting shortly afterward disputed the claim.
The authenticity of either statement could not be verified, though the second was posted in the name of the person who usually handles the group's Web site claims and announcements.
Wednesday's back-and-forth on same Web site, known as a clearinghouse of Islamic militant material, could be a sign of confusion or competition within al-Qaida of Iraq. It follows speculation about the Jordanian-born militant that has been unusual in size and scope.
Various rumors and claims in recent days have been made that al-Zarqawi is wounded, possibly by a bullet penetrating his lung and may have died or been taken out of Iraq for medical care.
The first statement Wednesday was signed in the name of Abu Doujanah al-Tunisi of the media committee of al-Qaida in Iraq - an unfamiliar name from past statements.
"The leaders met after the injury of our sheik, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi ... and decided to appoint a deputy to take the lead until the return of our sheik," it said in a posting on a militant Web site that two days earlier announced al-Zarqawi had been injured.
The statement said the new leader would be Abu Hafs al-Gerni, "deputy of the holy warriors."
But a rival denial was posted a short time later, signed off by Abu Maysara al-Iraqi, the name usually associated with al-Qaida in Iraq postings when a name is indicated.
"We deny all that has been said about appointing the so-called Abu Hafs or anyone by any other name," it said, reminding that al-Qaida in the past has said to believe postings only in his name.
A respected pan-Arab newspaper reported Thursday that several candidates were jockeying to succeed al-Zarqawi, none of whom it identified as Abu Hafs al-Gerni but one being Abu Maysara al-Iraqi - the man who issued Wednesday's denial a deputy had been appointed.
Al Hayat newspaper quoted multiple unidentified sources for various names, saying that sources in Jordan close to al-Zarqawi, including a former Iraqi officer told the newspaper Abu Maysara al-Iraqi and Abu al-Dardaa al-Iraqi, an al-Qaida operative in Baghdad, were two potential successors.
Wednesday's first statement said al-Gerni "was known for carrying out the hardest operations, and our sheik would choose him and his group for the tough operations."
Middle East experts on Islamic militants told The Associated Press that al-Gerni is a Saudi who has been al-Zarqawi's military adviser and is the emir, or prince - as senior commanders are called - of the military committee of al-Qaida in Iraq.
The two experts spoke on condition they not be further identified.
An aide to Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, head of Iraq's largest political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said al-Gerni was a non-Iraqi and a key lieutenant to al-Zarqawi.
"We are not sure 100 percent that al-Zarqawi is dead, and we can't consider this step as a confirmation for his killing," said Haitham al-Hussaini, director of al-Hakim's office.
"According to our intelligence, this al-Gerni is well known to us as one of al-Zarqawi's top aides in Iraq who has an Arab nationality," al-Hussaini said without elaborating on which country al-Gerni came from.
Rasha al-Tayar, spokesman for the national security minister, said he had not heard of al-Gerni and he did not have any details on the status of al-Zarqawi.
Al-Zarqawi is believed to be backed by Islamic extremists who have entered Iraq from neighboring countries. Iraq has called on its neighbors, particularly Syria, to stop foreign fighters entering Iraq to clash with U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHARA, Associated Press Writer
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