By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 9, 2006
BAGHDAD, June 8 -- To kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, U.S. forces first found his spiritual adviser. Then they had to wait. They tracked the adviser for weeks, until he met Iraq's most-wanted man Wednesday night in a village north of Baghdad. As the two huddled in a farmhouse, an F-16 warplane blasted it with two 500-pound bombs, killing them and at least four other people.
Facial recognition, fingerprints, tattoos and scars allowed intelligence officials to identify the battered body of Zarqawi, who directed some of the bloodiest attacks of the three-year-old insurgency and became its public face.
A long-sought victory for President Bush, the U.S.-led military forces and their Iraqi allies, Zarqawi's death was the most significant public triumph since the capture of former president Saddam Hussein in late 2003.
Zarqawi "will never murder again," Bush said in a statement in the White House Rose Garden.
The successful strike on Zarqawi came at a time of dwindling support for the Iraq war in the United States and intense scrutiny of alleged killings of unarmed civilians by U.S. Marines.
In a deeply divided Iraq, the killing of the Jordanian-born insurgent leader -- whom the government painted as a foreign invader -- was hailed with varying degrees of enthusiasm by leaders of all mainstream political factions: Sunni and Shiite Muslim Arabs and ethnic Kurds. But across the country, there were few raucous celebrations, and some Iraqis said they were saddened by the loss of the most visible symbol of resistance to Iraq's new order brought on by the American invasion.
U.S. and Iraqi officials cautioned Thursday that insurgents had prepared for life without Zarqawi and would continue the fight without him. But they expressed hope that his removal would ultimately help tame the fighting and bring stability to Iraq.
"Today Zarqawi was defeated," said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who won a double dose of positive news Thursday when he also named top security ministers, completing his cabinet lineup after weeks of wrangling. Parliament endorsed the members in a vote held minutes after the announcement of Zarqawi's death.
"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," Maliki said, as Iraqi reporters broke into hearty applause and chanted an Islamic prayer in unison.
President Bush congratulated Maliki by telephone on the day's events, officials said. Speaking from the Rose Garden several hours later, Bush praised the U.S.-led forces for pursuing 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 of Zarqawi.
A high school dropout and longtime criminal, Zarqawi had been implicated in a string of terror attacks across the Muslim world since 2002, including bombings in Morocco and Turkey and the killing of an American diplomat in Jordan.
But as he claimed leadership over insurgents in Iraq in 2003, his stature soared, growing to rival even that of Saudi-born al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.
U.S. forces placed a $25 million bounty on Zarqawi's head, the same reward offered for bin Laden. Maliki told al-Arabiya television that "we will meet our promise" concerning the reward; a military spokesman said it was too soon to tell if it would be paid.
U.S. commanders and officials have consistently called Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq organization the top threat to the country's security and made eliminating Zarqawi a priority. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called him "the godfather of sectarian killing and terrorism in Iraq."
Some outside analysts, however, have said U.S. officials have long overemphasized his role, which by their account further waned in recent months during a growing rift between Iraqi and foreign-born insurgents.
After Hussein was captured, there was widespread speculation that the insurgency would weaken, but it steadily escalated.
A statement purportedly from al-Qaeda in Iraq, posted Thursday on an Internet site used by insurgent groups, said, "What has befallen us today will not affect our determination." Underscoring the continuing power of the insurgents, bombers struck three times in the Iraqi capital Thursday, killing at least 25 people and wounding dozens more.
Beginning in the months after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Hussein in April 2003, Zarqawi used semiautonomous cells across the country to batter U.S. and Iraqi security forces and to conduct hundreds of bombings, beheadings and other terrorist attacks on civilians.
Among the bloodiest attacks claimed by his group was the August 2003 bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that killed 23 people, including the organization's chief envoy. Zarqawi was also blamed for a string of bombings on March 2, 2004, that killed more than 100 worshipers in Karbala and Baghdad during the Shiite festival of Ashura.
He is believed to have personally beheaded two American civilians abducted in 2004: Nicholas Berg, 26, an entrepreneur from West Chester, Pa., and Eugene "Jack" Armstrong, a 52-year-old contractor from Hillsdale, Mich. A video showing Berg's decapitation was posted on the Internet, one of the first in a string of such postings that year.
Earlier this year, al-Qaeda in Iraq recast itself as part of a coalition of insurgent groups called the Mujaheddin Shura Council. That move corresponded with a shift toward a more intense focus on attacks against civilians, most of them Shiites, and calls for civil war between Sunni Arabs and Shiites.
Sectarian violence has increased markedly nationwide since the bombing in February of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad. The Iraqi government pinned the attack on Zarqawi, though al-Qaeda in Iraq denied involvement.
In an audiotape released last week, Zarqawi called on Iraqi Sunnis to kill Shiites, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's most revered Shiite cleric.
For years, Zarqawi and his top aides have been hunted by an elite and highly secretive team of U.S. Special Forces personnel known as Task Force 77. They nearly apprehended Zarqawi on several occasions, most recently in April during a series of raids near the southern city of Yusufiyah, according to a defense official familiar with the Zarqawi hunt.
A crucial breakthrough in the hunt came last month when Jordanian intelligence officers captured one of Zarqawi's mid-level operatives near the Iraqi border, according to the official. Employed by the Iraqi government as a customs clearance officer in Rutbah, along the main road from Amman to Baghdad, the operative identified himself as Ziad Khalaf al-Kerbouly. Kerbouly said in a statement broadcast by Jordanian television on May 23 that he used his position to help Zarqawi smuggle cash and materiel for the insurgency.
Under questioning, Kerbouly told Jordanian interrogators something that they did not broadcast: the identity and contacts for Zarqawi's new "spiritual adviser," Sheik Abdel Rahman. Task Force 77 located Abdel Rahman, kept him under surveillance and learned that there was "a very high probability" he would meet Zarqawi at the house on Wednesday.
According to a U.S. intelligence source, Abdel Rahman served as Zarqawi's liaison to Muslim clerics across Iraq, gathering recruits, funding and popular support for the insurgency. Unlike Zarqawi's previous spiritual adviser, Abdullah Janabi, Abdel Rahman -- a Sunni Muslim, as was Zarqawi -- supported al-Qaeda in Iraq's campaign of attacks against Iraq's majority Shiite population.
Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, a U.S. military spokesman, declined to comment on specific Jordanian help. By his account, the capture or killing of several top al-Qaeda lieutenants in recent weeks, beginning with a cell leader in Yusufiyah on April 6, brought critical intelligence about the leader.
As expected, Abdel Rahman went Wednesday to the house in the village of Hibhib, north of Baghdad. "We knew exactly who was there," Caldwell said. "We knew it was Zarqawi, and that was who we went to get."
Despite previous reports of Zarqawi nearly being captured, Caldwell said, "last night was the first time we have had definite and unquestionable information about exactly where he was located, knowing that we could strike that target without collateral damage."
Shown from above in a military photograph, the house appeared to be a white, two-story structure with a verdant courtyard, located beside plowed fields and a paved road at the edge of a date palm forest. No other buildings were nearby.
The house was rented three months ago to a Sunni family that fled under threat from the predominantly Shiite Baghdad slum of Sadr City, according to Jumaa al-Ubaidi, the building's owner.
Two Air Force F-16C jets were brought into the attack while flying an unrelated mission, Lt. Gen. Gary North, commander of the Combined Forces Air Component, told Pentagon reporters by telephone Thursday. The pilots were told there was a "high-value target in the building."
Caldwell showed a grainy, black-and-white video of the attack, shot from one of the F-16s. A bomb dropped by the other jet is seen detonating in white cross hairs that mark the house. A plume of smoke billows. Moments later, another bomb explodes on the site.
Iraqi police soon arrived on the scene, followed by U.S. forces, Caldwell said.
In two photographs released by the military Thursday, Zarqawi's face appears bulbous and bruised, with a red welt on his left cheek, a few minor cuts and blood clotted in his nose. His body cannot be seen. Caldwell said his face was cleaned before the photographs were taken.
Several discrepancies emerged in various accounts of Wednesday's events. Police and witnesses at the scene told a Washington Post special correspondent that Zarqawi was only wounded in the attack and was whisked away by U.S. forces, dying in their custody. Caldwell said he was killed instantly.
FBI forensics experts matched Zarqawi's fingerprints to a set on file. They plan to perform DNA analysis at their laboratory in Quantico, Va., according to Special Agent Richard Kolko, a bureau spokesman.
Caldwell said intelligence gathered from the attack was being used to pursue other targets. Coalition forces raided 17 locations in and around Baghdad on Wednesday night, seizing a "treasure trove" of information about terrorist operations in the country, Caldwell said.
In parliament Thursday, Abdul Qadir Muhammed Jassim, a Sunni Arab who commanded the Iraqi army in the west, was confirmed as defense minister. Jawad al-Bolani, a Shiite, was put in charge of the Interior Ministry. Ambassador Khalilzad and many Sunni politicians had warned against naming a minister tied to the country's main Shiite militias. Bolani told lawmakers he was not affiliated with a political party.
Sherwan Alwaeli, a Shiite, was named the country's top official for national security.
Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer and staff writer Nelson Hernandez in Baghdad and staff writers Thomas E. Ricks, Josh White, Ann Scott Tyson, Dan Eggen and Barton Gellman and researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report. Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki, Bassam Sebti, K.I. Ibrahim and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and Hasan Shammari in Hibhib also contributed.