U.S. shows photos of battered al-Zarqawi
BAGHDAD, Iraq - The U.S. military displayed images of the battered face of Iraq's most feared terrorist Thursday and Iraqis celebrated with gunfire after American bombs killed the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. It was a long-sought victory for U.S. forces, but officials cautioned of violence ahead — and a string of blasts proved that prediction almost immediately.
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Within minutes of the announcement of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki named three key security ministers — military and political breakthroughs in rapid succession that marked the biggest potential turnaround in Iraq in months.
The two events may give the United States and its Iraqi allies another brief chance to build momentum toward stability and away from violence. With al-Zarqawi out of the way and the new government in place, some Sunni Arab leaders may be emboldened to resume a dialogue they started last fall — exchanges sunk by al-Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq.
If another effort is made, much will depend on the Iraqi government's ability to live up to its promises to build a political system that includes all groups, including disaffected Sunnis. More than a dozen Sunni Arab insurgent groups are believed to be operating in Iraq, and a few use tactics just as ruthless as al-Zarqawi's.
"This popular front and national unity is our guarantee to fighting all challenges," al-Maliki told a Baghdad news conference. But, he warned, "whenever there is a new al-Zarqawi, we will kill him."
President Bush and U.S. military leaders cautioned that the death of the 39-year-old militant was not likely to end the bloodshed — just as the capture of Saddam Hussein and the killings of his two sons failed to dampen the insurgency. A rash of bombings that killed nearly 40 people in Baghdad on Thursday confirmed that assessment.
"We have tough days ahead of us in Iraq that will require the continuing patience of the American people," Bush said.
Nevertheless, the president called the killing "a severe blow to al-Qaida, and it is a significant victory in the war on terror."
Tips from within al-Zarqawi's own terror network helped the U.S. locate and bomb a safe house where the al-Qaida leader was meeting in secret with top associates, American military officials said. Al-Maliki told al-Arabiya television the $25 million bounty the U.S. put on al-Zarqawi's head would be honored, saying "we will meet our promise."
Al-Zarqawi was killed at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday after an intense two-week hunt that U.S. officials said first led to the terror leader's spiritual adviser and then to him.
Loud applause broke out as al-Maliki, flanked by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and U.S. Gen. George Casey, announced at the news conference that "al-Zarqawi was eliminated."
Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the American airstrike targeted "an identified, isolated safe house." Four other people, including a woman and a child, were killed with al-Zarqawi and Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, the terrorist's spiritual consultant.
Al-Qaida confirmed al-Zarqawi's death in a statement and vowed to continue its "holy war." Curiously, the announcement was signed by al-Iraqi, who was identified as deputy "emir" of the group, perhaps in an attempt to spread confusion.
Fingerprints, tattoos and scars helped U.S. troops identify al-Zarqawi's body, White House spokesman Tony Snow said. The military released pictures of al-Zarqawi's face after the airstrike, with his eyes closed and spots of blood, images reminiscent of photos of Saddam's dead sons.
Spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell also showed a videotape of the air assault taken by one of the F-16 fighter jets that dropped the two 500-pound bombs, obliterating the terrorist leader's safe house five miles west of Baqouba.
"We had absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Zarqawi was in the house," Caldwell said.
U.S. and Iraqi intelligence found al-Zarqawi by following al-Iraqi, who was seen going into the house shortly before American jets were ordered into action in the skies 30 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Intelligence officials had identified al-Iraqi several weeks ago with help from "somebody inside the al-Zarqawi network," Caldwell said.
"Through a painstaking intelligence effort, we were able to start tracking him, monitor his movements and establish when he was doing his linkup with al-Zarqawi," he said.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, who commands U.S. and coalition air operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, said al-Zarqawi's meeting in the house gave commanders time to gather exact coordinates and redirect the fighters, which were already in the air.
"We knew exactly where he was and we chose the right moment," North told The Associated Press.
In the final two weeks of the manhunt, Caldwell indicated U.S. and Iraqi forces had pinpointed the location of many other key al-Qaida figures but had held off for fear of spooking their boss. After al-Zarqawi was killed, U.S. and Iraqi forces carried out 17 raids in the Baghdad region, he said.
What may have partly enabled the success now after so long was Khalilzad's efforts to patch up relations with Sunnis.
At the same time, the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi, who was sensitive to U.S.-encouraged derision of a foreigner killing Iraqis, began cozying up to Sunni insurgents. It was probably the move that led to his undoing, said Ed O'Connell, a retired Air Force intelligence officer who led manhunts for Osama bin Laden and others in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.
"Once that happened, all we needed was a guy inside the insurgency to tell us where he was and, bam, we got him," he said.
The airstrike occurred in the village of Hibhib, which is known for producing anise-flavored arak, a popular alcoholic drink.
The region had seen a spike in gruesome sectarian killings in recent days, including the discovery of 17 severed heads in fruit boxes. Not far away this week, gunmen killed 21 Shiites, including a dozen students, after separating out four Sunni Arabs.
Al-Zarqawi was known for his extraordinary brutality as one of the extremist leaders in the largely Sunni Arab insurgency, earning him the title of "the slaughtering sheik" among his followers. He is believed to have wielded the huge knives used in beheading American hostages Nicholas Berg and Eugene Armstrong. Grisly videos of the slayings were posted on the Internet, part of the propaganda campaign that was key to al-Zarqawi's movement.
His followers were believed responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqi Shiites, mainly in a campaign of roadside bombings and suicide attacks.
In the past year, he moved his campaign beyond Iraq's borders, claiming to have carried out a triple suicide bombing against hotels in Amman, Jordan, that killed 60 people, as well as other attacks in his homeland and even a rocket attack from Lebanon into Israel.
Caldwell said Egyptian-born Abu al-Masri would likely take the reins of al-Qaida in Iraq. He said al-Masri trained in Afghanistan and arrived in Iraq in 2002 to establish an al-Qaida cell.
Buoyed by his announcement of al-Zarqawi's death, al-Maliki won parliamentary approval for three important ministers — ending a three-week stalemate.
The new defense minister is Army Gen. Abdul-Qader Mohammed Jassim al-Mifarji, a Sunni Arab, while Shiite Jawad al-Bolani took over the Interior post. The new minister of state for national security, Sherwan al-Waili, who will advise the prime minister, also is a Shiite.
Police in Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City greeted news of al-Zarqawi's death by firing weapons into the air and chanting in elation.
But al-Zarqawi was mourned in Anbar province.
"This a great loss for all the Sunnis," 40-year-old Abid al-Duleimi said. "If they killed al-Zarqawi, more than one al-Zarqawi will replace him."
Associated Press writers Hamza Hendawi, Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sinan Salaheddin and Qais al-Bashir in Baghdad and Katherine Shrader in Washington contributed to this report.
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"When the Americans arrived they took him out of the ambulance, they beat him on his stomach and wrapped his head with his dishdasha, then they stomped on his stomach and his chest until he died and blood came out of his nose."
Iraqi man who claims U.S. soldiers beat al-Zarqawi
Zarqawi Beaten, 'That's Baloney'
U.S. General Dismisses Claims That Troops Hit Qaeda In Iraq Leader
The top commander of U.S. troops in Iraq brushed back claims that slain al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was beaten by U.S. forces after his hideout was bombed Wednesday.
"The way I respond to the comments of the alleged Iraqi who saw what went on there is: 'that's baloney,'" Gen. George Casey said.
An Iraqi man who was one of the first people on the scene of the U.S. airstrike targeting al-Zarqawi said he saw American troops beating a man who had a beard like the al Qaeda leader.
Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Casey said al-Zarqawi died while American soldiers were attempting to save his life.
The witness, who lives near the house where al-Zarqawi spent his last days, said he saw the man lying on the ground near an irrigation canal. He was badly wounded but still alive, the man told Associated Press Television News.
The Iraqi, identified only as Mohammed, said residents put a bearded man in an ambulance before U.S. forces arrived.
"When the Americans arrived they took him out of the ambulance, they beat him on his stomach and wrapped his head with his dishdasha, then they stomped on his stomach and his chest until he died and blood came out of his nose," Mohammed said, without saying how he knew the man was dead.
No other witnesses have come forward to corroborate the Iraqi man's account that al-Zarqawi was beaten. U.S. officials have only said al-Zarqawi mumbled and tried to roll off a stretcher before dying.
U.S. authorities changed their initial account of the al Qaeda in Iraq leader's death, first saying he died outright in the airstrike, then saying he survived, but died soon after.