A statement in the name of al-Qaeda Organisation for Holy War in Iraq was posted on Thursday on a website, saying the group had appointed a deputy to fill in for al-Zarqawi, but a later statement purportedly from a group spokesman swiftly denied it.

London-based Islamist activist Yasser al-Serri, who monitors websites used by such groups, said statements from spokesman Abu Maysarah al-Iraqi were more credible and the earlier posting was questionable even though it bore al-Qaeda's signature.

The earlier posting had said that leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq had met and named Sheikh Abu Hafs al-Qarni as deputy leader "until the return of our Sheikh (Zarqawi) safely".

But the later statement from Abu Maysarah, who often posts al-Qaeda's internet utterances, said: "We deny what was issued about the appointment of the so-called Abu Hafs or any other name."

The statement attributed to Abu Maysarah said the group had announced the wounding of al-Zarqawi on Tuesday to show its credibility and ease fears that he had died.

Official response

Iraq's interior minister said on Thursday he had received information five days ago that al-Zarqawi had been wounded, but would not say where it came from.

"Yes, it is true," Bayan Jabor said when asked about the internet posting to that effect.

"It is my job to know," he said.

The US blames al-Zarqawi for
much of the violence in Iraq

Wafiq al-Samarrai, a security adviser to Iraq's president, told Aljazeera: "It is more likely that al-Zarqawi has been wounded during the vast military operations launched in western Iraq, Baghdad and Salah al-Din province.
 
"There have been two possibilities: The first one is that the news was leaked by al-Zarqawi and his organisation to show him as a 'superman' and this is less probable. The second possibility is that he has been wounded."
 
He said: "The wounding of al-Zarqawi gives the impression that terrorists are in a state of retreat."
  
"Many of al-Zarqawi's aides have been arrested and they will shortly appear on TV screens," al-Samarrai said.
 
When asked about reports that al-Zarqawi was moved to a neighbouring country accompanied by two physicians, al-Samarrai said: "We are not concerned with wherever he goes as he is now considered out of the battle."