Deepening the speculation about the severity of battle injuries to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, his followers Thursday squabbled on the Web over naming a new leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, exposing rifts and raising questions about how the insurgency may change.
May has seen one of the bloodiest waves of violence to date in Iraq. More than 620 Iraqis and 60 US troops have died since the Shiite-led government was formed April 28.
Analysts say the insurgency can probably carry on for now with or without Mr. Zarqawi's guiding hand, pointing to the high level of bloodshed that killed at least 13 more people Thursday.
But it is under increasing pressure from numerous US offensives in western Iraq, the loss of two-dozen top lieutenants, and intelligence from Zarqawi's captured computer. Iraq's budding government is also tightening its grip, announcing Thursday that it would launch a new offensive with 40,000 troops and set up 600 checkpoints in Baghdad.
"These operations will aim to turn the government's role from defensive to offensive," said Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabor. Mr. Jabor said he is "not sure whether [Zarqawi] is dead, but we are sure that he is injured."
The long-term impact on a driving force behind the multifaceted insurgency may depend on whether Zarqawi dies or recovers enough to become "spiritual leader" of the group.
"It won't make a great deal of difference if he has a more backseat role, but he will be more vulnerable," says Magnus Ranstorp, head of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
"If he dies, it would be a blow," says Mr. Ranstorp, contacted in Copenhagen. "It may atomize the insurgency, and different centers of gravity would emerge. He is a unifying factor for them."
Those divisions already appear to be taking root, with competing claims Thursday on the Web about the appointment of an interim leader of the group.
A website that frequently posts statements by Al Qaeda in Iraq wrote: "The leaders met after the wounding of our Sheikh Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, may God heal him, and decided to appoint a deputy to assume the leadership until the return of our Sheikh safely."
According to that statement, the chosen man is Sheikh Abu Hafs al-Qarni - a Saudi militant who is believed to be Zarqawi's military adviser. He is "renowned for carrying out the most difficult operations" chosen by Zarqawi, on whose head Washington has placed a $25 million bounty.
But shortly afterward, a new statement was posted, refuting the first and signed with the name normally attached to statements by Al Qaeda in Iraq. "We deny all that has been said about appointing the so-called Abu Hafs or anyone by any other name," it read.
Information about Zarqawi's condition is surfacing as several trends buffet the insurgency. US and Iraqi forces, which have launched three major offensives in the volatile western Anbar Province this month, report a rapid increase in intelligence they get from Iraqis weary of the violence, as well as from senior detainees.
The intense violence of May has also hidden thefact that fewer attacks have taken place against US and Iraqi government targets, according to US officials. They say that the current surge - 118 car bombs since mid-April - was ordered by Zarqawi at a meeting last month in Syria.
"Ending the insurgency is not going to happen with a big bang," says a US diplomat in Baghdad. "It's going to be a slow degradation rather than a one-day surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri."
Quoting rank-and-file fighters and one of Zarqawi's top lieutenants, the Washington Post Thursday reported that Zarqawi had been shot through the lung and was on a respirator.
Ranstorp says that this insurgency can manage itself, even when Zarqawi is distracted. US and Iraqi forces, he adds, "have a better handle [on the insurgency], and tactical victories - but in order to have closure and a durable effect, you must put them on trial and expose them."
Ranstorp says that the most effective interrogators of Al Qaeda groups are masters of the theological debate. "They can point out wrong interpretations [of Islam] that further delegitimize what [militants] are trying to do."
Relying on military means, US and Iraqi forces have made some progress in areas where they have applied the stick. But since the Fallujah invasion last November - billed as the attack that would "break the back" of the violence - the insurgency has flared again and again.
Insurgents who did not stay to fight in Fallujah raised their flag in the northern city of Mosul and in Baghdad. US operations have since sought to push them out of Ramadi, and more recently Qaim, on the border with Syria. This week they targeted Abu Ghraib and, beginning at dawn Wednesday, the western city of Haditha.
Earlier this month in Haditha, four US troops were killed in an attack launched from a hospital.
"The Fallujah operation certainly, at least for a limited period of time, did provide better security," says the US diplomat of the invasion in which the US Marines cleared tens of thousands of houses, and heavily damaged the city. "The other lesson I would draw is, you have to maintain the pressure, all of the time."
The same shift has occurred in Baghdad. US and Iraqi troops regained control of the insurgent stronghold of Haifa Street this spring, only to see violence move to Sunni districts of Adhimiya and Doura.
"Some [insurgents] were killed. Some were captured. And some ran away," says Maj. Fouad Issa Saleh, commander of the Delta Company of the Iraqi Army's 1st Battalion, which now controls Haifa Street. "Iraqi forces are starting to learn how to deal with the streets, and the Americans are slowly, slowly beginning to pull back."
But success in one place often just shifts the problem to another. "It's like toothpaste: You squeeze somewhere, and it just pushes the insurgents somewhere else in Iraq," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "It would work if you had enough people to cover the ground."
The test will be in Baghdad in coming days, as police and military forces fan out. Officials already know that, despite Zarqawi's Jordanian lineage - and the belief that almost all suicide bombers are foreign militants - the main targets are Iraqis once loyal to Saddam Hussein, or those who adhere to a radical strain of Sunni Islam.
"The majority of people blowing up things ... assembling car bombs [and] financing the blowing up of Humvees or attacks on police stations - they are Iraqi," says the US diplomat. "There is [also] a foreign element, unquestionably a very pernicious foreign element, which is one of the reasons it's so difficult to degrade it."
For most Iraqis, the issue is constant insecurity. "The price is too heavy, and it's not improving," says an Iraqi doctor, shaking her head as she sits with her family.
"If they let Saddam die naturally, it would take 15 years," adds her husband. "But it would have been easier than the last three years."
• The new Iraqi government was sworn in on May 3, 2005.
• US troop strength: 138,000, down from February's high of 155,000.
• Non-US coalition forces: 23,000
• Iraqi military forces currently operational: 75,782 and climbing steadily.
• US Military combat fatalities:
May 2005 63
• Car bombings:
May 2005 93
• Crude oil production
Target: 2.5 million barrels/day
Current: 2.0 million barrels/day
Prewar: 3.0 million barrels/day
• Power generation
(Avg. daily megawatt hours)
• Schools rehabilitated to date: 2,457
• Secondary school teachers trained: 33,000
• Total USAID assistance to Iraq 2003-2005: $4,928,810,106
Sources: USAID, The Brookings Institution