The Iraq War is replacing the attacks of September 11, 2001, as fodder for conspiracy theories emanating from the Middle East - in particular, questions surrounding Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. Does he exist? Where is he hiding? Is he actually an American or Jordanian agent? Is he dead?
Print and television reports in the Arab and Iranian press regularly question Mr. al-Zarqawi's existence. A member of the former Iraqi Governing Council, Fadhl al-Rube'i, was interviewed on the Lebanese channel New TV, on May 16, 2004. He called Mr. al-Zarqawi mythical and a creation of the Pentagon's "disinformation" center.
The spokesman for radical Iraqi Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, Sheikh Abd al-Hadi al-Daraji, likewise stated in an April 4 interview with the Israeli-Arab weekly Kul Al-Arab that Mr. al-Zarqawi was an "ambiguous, imaginary, and made-up figure," created to justify American operations in Iraq. According to a report in the Baghdad newspaper Al-Mu'tamar, on October 28, 2004, fliers distributed by Sunni clerics in Fallujah maintained, "there is no Zarqawi in existence and that such person was an American creation."
An international relations expert at Egypt's Al-Ahram Institute, Said al-Lawindi, appeared on Egyptian channel 1, on November 16, 2004, and alleged that Mr. al-Zarqawi was a fabrication: "Where is this al-Zarqawi? I have read even in the French press, in Le Monde, that anyone can show a photograph of someone who died decades ago and claim that it is al-Zarqawi. This is an attempt by the U.S. to emphasize ... you can't go on forever talking about bin Laden, who has also become a myth."
An article titled, "Zarqawi the Terror Monster: But Does He Really Exist?" appeared in the Saudi daily Arab News, on October 26, 2004, and stated, "Zarqawi has been built up into an almost legendary figure ... Zarqawi is suspected of direct involvement in the kidnap and beheading of several foreigners in Iraq ... But many question his very existence." The article also discussed the battle in Falluja: "The people of Falluja, however, insist that they have never seen the man or heard about him except through the media. So, where is Zarqawi or, indeed, does he exist?"
Over the past few years the Iranian press has blamed America and Israel for most of the terrorist attacks in Iraq, especially the ones that Mr. al-Zarqawi was believed to have masterminded. The same exact newspapers and TV programs have of late changed their story - they now point to Jordan as well.
In a December 26, 2004, Tehran Times article titled, "What Does Jordan Want From Iraq," Hassan Hanizadeh wrote: "After the overthrow of Saddam, officials of ... Jordan sent Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to Iraq to carry out destabilization activities ... Jordan is implementing a disinformation campaign against the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Iraqi Shias ... Jordan intends to reestablish the Ba'ath regime in Iraq and re-marginalize the Shias, in order to resolve the Palestine issue through the resettlement of five million Palestinian exiles in western Iraq."
At the end of May, amid reports that Mr. al-Zarqawi was wounded in battle, rumors circulated throughout the Middle East discussing whether he really did exist - was he alive? On June 1, 2005, Iran's Mehr News Agency, reported, "Al-Zarqawi has received treatment at a hospital in the Jordanian capital Amman amid tight security by Jordanian intelligence forces and under the supervision of the Jordanian King Abdullah II ... There is reliable news in Jordan that al-Zarqawi was transferred to the Al-Hussein clinic in Oman ... The news comes after reports previously claimed that al-Zarqawi was receiving medical treatment in Iran."
Responding to claims that he was in Iran, on May 31, 2005, in an article titled, "Is al-Zarqawi in Tehran?" Mr. Hanizadeh wrote in the Tehran Times that claims of Mr. al-Zarqawi receiving medical treatment in Iran was, "similar to an April's Fools Day joke."
The first week of June 2005 saw reports in Saudi dailies Al-Madinah and Okaz, as well as Western publications such as the Associated Press, which quoted insurgents attesting to Mr. al-Zarqawi's death. Al-Mandinah claimed he was buried in a Falluja cemetery and that he left a will instructing Osama bin Laden to appoint his successor.
As this column has repeatedly discussed over the past year, in the Arab world and Iran conspiracy theories surround almost every major news story. The subject of Mr. al-Zarqawi is just one of the latest.
Mr. Stalinsky is the Executive Director of The Middle East Media Research Institute.