A Battle to Succeed Zarqawi

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ZACH MOTT / U.S. ARMY HANDOUT / REUTERS

Remains of the Raid: Coalition soldiers find sheets, rugs and other domestic items amid the rubble from the two 500-lb. bombs that a U.S. warplane unloaded on al-Zarqawi’s not-so-safe house.

Several Islamic militant websites Monday announced Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi's successor at the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. One site, called Without Borders, said the new leader, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, is an "experienced fighter." The name was not immediately known and could be a new pseudonym. "Mujaher" means "immigrant," which could indicate that the new chief for Zarqawi's organization is, like Zarqawi himself, from outside of Iraq.

And whether Zarqawi's successor comes from inside or outside Iraq will say a lot about the future of the insurgency, whether it is part of the global jihad or a so-called nationalist endeavor to remove an occupying power. Whoever it is, however, both U.S. and Iraqi officials fear that he will try to make a big statement to prove himself. "We're worried about what the next guy will do to make a name for himself," says a senior Iraqi military official.

Inheriting Zarqawi's mantle will be no easy task. His influence extended well beyond the relatively few bloodthirsty fighters he commanded. His willingness to fight on the front lines, his prowess with propaganda tools like Internet videos, and his ability to mobilize massive numbers of suicide bombers had elevated Zarqawi to the level of celebrity. He was successful at directing insurgent attacks against Shi'ites and initiating a controversial plan to sow sectarian strife in Iraq.

In recent days a number of names — actually, noms de guerre — have surfaced as potentially rising stars. (Al-Qaeda in Iraq constantly changes its commanders — and switches their names — for security reasons and to throw the U.S. off track.) Whether any of these personalities will attain Zarqawi's superstar-jihadi status remains to be seen. But TIME spoke with Abu Bara, an insurgent commander in Zarqawi's organization, and came up with these assessments of the most prominent commanders.

According to Abu Bara, before the announcement of Abu Hamza al-Muhajer as the new head, Abu Abdul Rahman al Iraqi was standing in as the "emergency emir" in charge of al-Qaeda in Iraq (a.k.a., al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia). He has been a long-standing commander of al-Qaeda in Iraq, having had positions as the emir in charge of Anbar province and the emir in charge of Samarra, north of Baghdad, where the shrine bombing occurred in late February. (It is unclear if he had a hand in that in that incident, which brought Iraq closer to a Shi'a-Sunni civil war than ever before.) Lately, says Abu Bara, Abu Abdul Rahman al Iraqi had been the "right hand" of Zarqawi in Al-Qaeda in Iraq. He has a reputation for being more moderate than Zarqawi, "not a hardliner." And, his relationship with the Arab (non-Iraqi) mujahedeen is very good, says Abu Bara. (The name Abdul Rahman is similar to that of the man the U.S. military describes as Zarqawi's spiritual advisor, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman, who is believed to have been killed along with Zarqawi on June 7. According to Abu Bara, however, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman is a different figure from Abu Abdul Rahman al Iraqi.)

Abu al Masri, is a name that has been mentioned by the U.S. military and by some other news organizations as a potential successor to Zarqawi. But TIME's sources warn against giving those reports too much credence. The name al Masri, which simply means "the Egyptian," didn't register as of particular importance with Abu Bara.

Then there is Abu Abdullah Rasheed al Bagdadi. In March 2006, Zarqawi established the Shura Council of Mujahedeen in Iraq to oversee the operations of different groups. The move was in reaction to pressure to put an Iraqi face on the insurgency. ("Al Baghdadi" implies he is from Baghdad.) At the beginning, five groups were represented on the council, including Al Qaeda in Iraq. The number of groups has expanded to nine, says Abu Bara. The groups are all Islamic hardline fundamentalist fighters with names like Brigade of Abu Bakr the Salafi and Battalion of the Foreigners. At the time it was formed, Zarqawi named Abu Abdullah Rasheed al Baghdadi (who had until then been known as Abu Hamza al Baghdadi) to head the council, technically putting al Baghdadi in a rank above Zarqawi. This could mean that the new head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq may be expected to defer to the head of the council on strategic goals, setting the two on a potential collision course for power and influence.

The death of Zarqawi, says Al-Qaeda in Iraq commander Abu Bara, will not change the role of the "Arab" (non-Iraqi) fighters in what remains of Zarqawi's group. "The organization is not ready to give up on the Arab mujhideen whatever the cause," he says. Also, says Abu Bara, the financing from other Arab states will continue to come in for Al-Qaeda in Iraq because, though Zarqawi was the head of the organization, he was not in charge of the finances. That fundraising mechanism, therefore, continues to function. On Saturday, many Islamic resistance websites posted a condolence letter about the death of Zarqawi from the Shura Council of Mujahedeen in Iraq. The bottom of the letter was signed: Abu Abdullah Rasheed al Baghdadi.