By Ellen Knickmeyer and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 8, 2006 5:57 PM
BAGHDAD, June 8 --Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the mastermind behind hundreds of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq, was killed early Wednesday by an airstrike --north of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Thursday.
Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born high-school dropout whose leadership of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq made him the most wanted man in Iraq, was killed along with several other people near the city of Baqubah, the officials said.
U.S. warplanes dropped two 500-pound bombs on a house in which Zarqawi was meeting with other insurgent leaders. A U.S. military spokesman said coalition forces pinpointed Zarqawi's location after weeks of tracking the movements of his spiritual adviser, Sheik Abdul Rahman, who also was killed in the blast.
Following the attack, coalition forces raided 17 locations in and around Baghdad, seizing a "treasure trove" of information about terror operations in the country, U.S. Army Major Gen. William B. Caldwell IV told reporters at a military briefing here. Some of the raids focused on targets the United States had been using to monitor Zarqawi's location, Caldwell said.
The stated aim of Zarqawi, 39, in addition to ousting foreign forces from Iraq, was to foment bloody sectarian strife between his fellow Sunni Muslims and members of Iraq's Shiite majority, a prospect that has become a grim reality during the past several months.
His killing is the most significant public triumph for the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq since the 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein, although analysts warned that Zarqawi's death may not stem the tide of insurgency and violence any more than Hussein's capture did. Copying Osama bin Laden's leadership strategy, Zarqawi set up numerous semi-autonomous terrorist cells across Iraq, many of which could continue operating after his death.
Underscoring the threat of continued violence, an explosion ripped through a busy outdoor market in Baghdad just a few hours after Zarqawi's death was announced. The blast, in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood, killed at least 19 people and wounded more than 40, the Associated Press reported. It was followed by several other bombings around the city, which according to news reports killed several people.
"Today Zarqawi was defeated," said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, appearing at a news conference with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. military commander in Iraq. "This is a message to all those who use violence killing and devastation to disrupt life in Iraq to rethink within themselves before it is too late."
Speaking from the Rose Garden several hours later, President Bush praised the U.S.-led coalition for continuing to pursue Zarqawi through "years of near-misses and false leads."
"Through his every action, he sought to defeat America and our coalition partners and turn Iraq into a safe haven from which al-Qaeda could wage its war," Bush said. ". . . Now Zarqawi has met his end, and this violent man will never murder again."
The president said he will meet with his Cabinet and national security team at Camp David on Monday to discuss the "way forward" in Iraq. On Tuesday, the group will be joined by Iraq's new ambassador to the United States, Bush said, and will speak by teleconference with Maliki and his recently formed cabinet.
Bush echoed Iraqi and U.S. military leaders in cautioning that Zarqawi's death would not in itself halt the bloodshed in Iraq.
"We can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without him," Bush said in his Rose Garden statement, a somber yet celebratory appearance for which he was joined by several of his top aides, including Vice President Cheney, national security adviser Stephen Hadley and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. "Yet the ideology of terror has lost one of its most visible and aggressive leaders."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair called Zarqawi's death "a strike against al-Qaeda in Iraq, and therefore a strike against al-Qaeda everywhere." He called Zarqawi the "most vicious prosecutor" of terrorism in Iraq.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters in Brussels that the killing of Zarqawi eliminated "the leading terrorist in Iraq and one of the three senior al-Qaeda leaders worldwide."
In a news conference after a NATO meeting, he said, "I think arguably over the last several years, no single person on this planet has had the blood of more innocent men, women and children on his hands than Zarqawi."
It was not immediately clear how many people in addition to Zarqawi were killed in the bombing of the house in the rural village of Hib Hib, about 55 miles northwest of Baghdad. Maliki initially said the toll included Zarqawi and seven others. In Caldwell's briefing, hours later, he indicated that a total of six people were killed -- Zarqawi, Rahman and four others, including a woman and child, whose identities had not yet been determined.
F-16 jets bombed the site twice in a matter of minutes, Caldwell said. Iraqi police were the first on the scene afterward to survey the damage, followed quickly by U.S.-led forces.
Zarqawi's lifeless body was immediately recognizable to those at the house, Caldwell said, and the discovery of tattoos and scars that he was known to have confirmed the identification. Fingerprint tests returned a 100 percent match, and results from DNA testing are expected within the next day or two, Caldwell said.
In the hours leading up to the attack, "we had absolutely no doubts whatsoever that Zarqawi was in the house," Caldwell said, adding that the tips leading to the safe house had come from within Zarqawi's network. "It was 100 percent confirmation. We knew exactly who was there, we knew it was Zarqawi, and that was the deliberate target that we went to get."
Video footage of the site broadcast on CNN showed a vast pile of cement rubble against a backdrop of tall palm trees. Iraqi civilians could be seen picking through the rubble and finding little more than an occasional piece of charred clothing or a blanket.
At Caldwell's briefing, he played a video of the bombs falling on the house in which Zarqawi was staying. Caldwell also displayed a photograph of Zarqawi's lifeless face.
Maliki's announcement of Zarqawi's death was met by applause among Iraqi reporters assembled in the briefing room. The news, which was confirmed by a Web site linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq, was also met by celebratory gunfire in the streets of Baghdad.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had recently rebranded itself as part of a coalition of insurgent groups called the Mujahideen al-Shura Council, had claimed responsibility for hundreds of attacks during the past three years, including many of the deadliest suicide bombings and gruesome beheadings of foreign hostages.
The group's focus had recently begun to shift from attacks on military forces to the targeting of civilians, most of them Shiites. In an audio statement last week, Zarqawi called for the killing of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most revered Shiite cleric.
U.S. forces had placed a $25 million bounty on Zarqawi, the organization's leader and most public face. He was last seen publicly in a video that aired in late April and early May, after widespread reports that U.S. and Iraqi forces had stepped up efforts to capture him.
"Zarqawi was the godfather of sectarian killing and terrorism in Iraq," Khalilzad said. "His organization has been responsible for the death of thousands of civilians in Iraq and abroad."
After the news conference, Maliki told the al-Arabiya television network that the $25 million bounty would be honored. "We will meet our promise," he said without elaborating.
U.S. commanders have consistently portrayed al-Qaeda in Iraq as the country's leading insurgent group and made killing Zarqawi and other top leaders a top priority. But military and political leaders were careful to emphasize that his death will not mean the death of the bloody insurgency.
"We should have no illusions. They will continue to kill," Blair said during his monthly news conference in London. "There will be fierce attempts, with the formation of the government, with the death of al-Zarqawi to fight back."
After Hussein was captured in an underground shelter near his birthplace of Tikrit, there was widespread speculation the insurgency would weaken, but violence has since steadily escalated.
A statement purportedly from al-Qaeda in Iraq posted Thursday on mosques in Ramadi, a violence-wracked city in western Iraq, claimed that the organization would be led by "a new prince" who had been named by Zarqawi to succeed him in the event of his death. "He will be a copy" of Zarqawi, the statement said.
Ambassador Khalilzad called the news "a good day for Iraq," and later added it was "a good day for Americans as well." He urged Iraqis to unite, in the wake of the news, behind Maliki's fledgling government, which took months to form and has struggled to agree on nominees for key ministerial posts.
Minutes after the Zarqawi's death was announced, the long-debated posts of interior minister, defense minister and national security adviser were filled in a giddy session of parliament. Abdul-Qadir Muhammed Jasim, a Sunni Arab and former Iraqi army commander, was named defense minister, Jawad al-Bolani, a Shiite, was put in charge of the interior ministry and Sheerwan al-Waeli, a Shiite, was named the country's top official for national security. Bolani, unlike his predecessor, Bayan Jabr, is not affiliated with Shiite militias.
"I call on Iraq's various communities to take responsibility for bringing sectarian violence to an end, and for all Iraqis to unite behind Prime Minister Maliki," Khalilzad said.
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and Debbi Wilgoren in Washington contributed to this report.