Sunday Times: Iraq’s most wanted terrorist has fled the country for emergency surgery after an American airstrike left him with shrapnel lodged in his chest, according to a senior insurgent commander in close contact with his group. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has a $25m bounty on his head after being blamed for suicide bombings, assassinations and the beheadings of western hostages including Ken Bigley, the
Liverpool engineer is now believed to be in Iran. The Sunday Times
Hala Jaber and Tony Allen-Mills, Washington
IRAQS most wanted terrorist has fled the country for emergency surgery after an American airstrike left him with shrapnel lodged in his chest, according to a senior insurgent commander in close contact with his group.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has a $25m bounty on his head after being blamed for suicide bombings, assassinations and the beheadings of western hostages including Ken Bigley, the Liverpool engineer is now believed to be in Iran.
He has suffered from bouts of high fever since being wounded by a missile that struck his convoy three weeks ago as he fled an American offensive near the town of al-Qaim in northwestern Iraq, the commander said.
His condition late last week was described as stable, but supporters were said to be preparing to move him to another non-Arab country for an operation to remove the shrapnel.
Shrapnel went in between the right shoulder and his chest, ripped it open and is still stuck in there, said the commander.
Officials in Washington believe that US forces may have lost their chance of capturing or killing him for now. If hes got to Iran, theres not much we can do, said one.
Uncertainty has surrounded the fate of the Jordanian-born Zarqawi since The Sunday Times reported two weeks ago that a doctor at Ramadi general hospital in western Iraq claimed to have treated him for a wound that was bleeding badly. Supporters were urged to pray for him and some reports suggested that he may have died.
The insurgent commander said that Zarqawi had initially directed resistance to the US offensive in al-Qaim but had been advised to leave when the position became too dangerous.
He had been with eight other men in a convoy of three cars when the missile struck, although sources in Washington said that US forces had had no evidence that Zarqawi was in their sights.
According to the commander, two pieces of shrapnel injured Zarqawi in his vehicle. One passed through his body but the other tore away a large chunk of flesh just beneath the shoulder.
Zarqawi was apparently treated with first aid, but a fever would suggest that the wound had become infected. He is said to have been taken to the Ramadi hospital four days after being hit but left soon afterwards despite being urged by the doctor to let himself be admitted as a patient.
The account could not be independently corroborated. Some western officials believe that false reports are being circulated as a smokescreen to cover Zarqawis movements, but the source has proved reliable in the past.
Experts are divided over the impact that his departure, however temporary, may have on the insurgency. A Japanese manager taken hostage while working for a British security company became one of the latest victims yesterday when a film of his body was released after he had been shot.
One Washington official said the insurgency would continue, but Zarqawis group might attract less money and fewer recruits than before.