BAGHDAD -- Al Qaeda in Iraq vowed yesterday to carry out ``major attacks" in Iraq to avenge the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and to demonstrate that the network remains a force to be reckoned with despite the loss of its leader.
In a statement posted on the website used by Al Qaeda, the organization said that it held a meeting of its top leaders, and that they resolved to ``prepare major attacks that will shake the enemy like an earthquake and rattle them out of sleep."
Such threats come as no surprise in the wake of the death of the high-profile leader of the group responsible for the most gruesome and deadly terror attacks in Iraq over the past three years. For days, postings on the website have been lauding Zarqawi's achievements and encouraging Muslim fighters to come to Iraq to avenge his death.
Whether or not Zarqawi's group will prove capable of regenerating itself and reclaiming the initiative with the kind of bombings and kidnappings that catapulted Zarqawi to infamy is something the military will closely watch.
But US officials are hoping the damage inflicted on Al Qaeda by Zarqawi's death and by a string of raids in the following days, will seriously disrupt the network, at least in the near term.
Speaking on Fox, General George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, said the military would continue to press the advantage against Al Qaeda in the days and weeks ahead.
``That's expected. They are hurt badly," he said, when asked about the Al Qaeda threat. ``We have had a steady drumbeat of operations against the Al Qaeda network here in Iraq since the Zarqawi operation. I expect them to say what they said; I expect them to try to do what they said.
``But, they lost their leader. Any organization, particularly an organization at war that loses their leader, is affected. And, we will continue to go after his network and disrupt them in what we feel is a very vulnerable period.
``It's not going to stop terrorism across Iraq," he added. ``But it is a major blow to both his network and to Al Qaeda."
Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, went further, telling CNN that he thinks the death of Zarqawi is a ``huge loss" for Al Qaeda.
``They're trying to make up for the huge loss and the disorientation they are suffering from because there is a huge vacuum of power now within Al Qaeda," he said.
The statement threatening new attacks was made in the name of Al Qaeda in Iraq but was issued in the name of the Mujahadeen Shura Council, an umbrella group of six radical insurgent groups who share Al Qaeda's goals. The statement pledged the group's allegiance to Osama bin Laden, the fugitive Al Qaeda founder and its global leader. Al Qaeda in Iraq has not yet named a leader to replace Zarqawi.
The US military, meanwhile, said medical specialists have concluded an autopsy on Zarqawi's body and may release the results today.
Casey said he has not seen the autopsy, but he dismissed as ``baloney" reports that Zarqawi did not die in the airstrike but was beaten to death by US forces who arrived at the scene.
He did, however, confirm a portion of the account given to various news organizations by a witness called Mohammed that Zarqawi was being loaded onto an ambulance when US forces arrived and that they removed him from the ambulance.
``Our soldiers who came on the scene found him being put in an ambulance by Iraqi police, they took him off, rendered first aid, and he expired," Casey said. ``And so he died while American soldiers were attempting to save his life."
The first US account of the aftermath of the strike said that Zarqawi was dead when American forces arrived. That version was then revised to say that Zarqawi was clinging to life when US soldiers reached the scene and found him on a stretcher. No mention was made of an ambulance or of an attempt to resuscitate him.
The alleged witness told APTN that he saw US forces remove Zarqawi from the ambulance and stomp him until he was dead.
In the worst violence yesterday, five civilians died in a gun battle between British troops in the southern city of Basra and militiamen loyal to the radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.