By Jonathan Finer and Hasan Shammari
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 10, 2006
BAGHDAD, June 9 -- Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was clinging to life when Iraqi and, later, American forces arrived at the scene of the bombing that killed him, a U.S. general said Friday, revising his earlier account of the al-Qaeda leader's death. Meanwhile, other circumstances surrounding the killing remained cloudy.
Zarqawi was lying on a stretcher at the scene of the bombing, in a village about 35 miles north of Baghdad, when U.S. forces arrived Wednesday evening and tentatively identified him as the wanted insurgent leader. He mumbled something indistinguishable and tried to move but was restrained, according to Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.
"Everybody re-secured him back onto the stretcher, but he died almost immediately thereafter from the wounds he'd received from this airstrike," Caldwell said.
A day earlier, when asked about reports that Zarqawi had somehow survived the blast from two 500-pound bombs dropped by Air Force fighter jets, Caldwell had told reporters, "He was dead when we arrived there."
In a video briefing for Pentagon reporters Friday, Caldwell also slightly adjusted earlier reports of who was killed in the bombing, saying that in addition to Zarqawi and his spiritual adviser, Sheik Abdel Rahman, another man and three women were among the dead but not a child, as he had first said.
The general attributed the discrepancies to inaccuracies in early reports.
In the northern city of Baqubah, near the site of the bombing, U.S. soldiers delivered the bodies of four people killed with Zarqawi, including two women, to the morgue at Baqubah General Hospital, according to Ahmad Fouad, the morgue director. Their identities remain unknown.
Even as new details emerged, many questions remained about the events surrounding Zarqawi's death, perhaps the greatest triumph for U.S. forces in their bloody campaign against Iraq's three-year-old insurgency. Caldwell said he was unsure why U.S. forces did not try to capture Zarqawi alive to glean intelligence.
"I do know that if in fact U.S. military or coalition forces feel that, in the execution of a target, that it's going to lead to exorbitant American or coalition forces losses, that we'll use proportional force rather than put young men and women's lives at risk," Caldwell said.
In addition, it was not clear why, if U.S. commanders were certain Zarqawi was at the target site, Iraqi police were the first ground forces to reach the scene afterward. When reporters asked Caldwell how anyone could have survived such a bombardment, Caldwell said Air Force experts had assured him that it was possible.
Ahmed Mohammed, a local resident who said he rushed to the scene shortly after the bombs struck at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, said on Friday that he and others helped pull a bearded man he now believes was Zarqawi from the rubble.
When U.S. forces arrived, they took the man aside, Mohammed said, and kept asking him his name. When he did not respond, the soldiers kicked him and hit him, Mohammed said, until his nose began to bleed.
The account provided by Mohammed, who said he and others at the bombing site were detained and interrogated for several hours by American forces, could not be independently confirmed. Caldwell described no interactions, spoken or physical, between U.S. soldiers and Zarqawi.
Across Iraq on Friday, relatively few violent incidents were reported. A curfew imposed on Baghdad and Diyala province -- where Zarqawi was killed -- was extended for three days.
Building on intelligence gathered during the weeks-long preparations for the strike that killed Zarqawi, U.S. forces have conducted dozens of operations in the past two days, including 17 simultaneous raids Wednesday night and 39 on Thursday. Some of them, Caldwell said, were related to what he had called a "treasure trove" of information recovered from the bombed house.
In his briefing Thursday, Caldwell showed photographs of material gathered in one of the raids, including weapons and ammunition, explosive belts, passports and Iraqi army uniforms. Insurgents have often carried out attacks wearing the uniforms of Iraq's security forces, though police officers and soldiers are also believed to have participated in some attacks.
Residents in and around the village of Hibhib, where Zarqawi was killed, said U.S. forces had raided several other houses in the vicinity Thursday night or early Friday morning, killing four people and wounding four others.
Residents of a house four miles from where Zarqawi died said U.S. soldiers, some of whom were bearded, burst in at 4:15 a.m., following a nearby barrage of what sounded like exploding mortar shells. Unlike other soldiers in the U.S. military, some Special Forces troops wear facial hair.
Ayad Abdul Hadi Hirmis al-Ibadi, 32, said the soldiers hit him with their rifles and kicked him as he lay on the ground. When his brother came to his aid, he was shot and killed, Ibadi said. His father, who was on the roof of the house, was also shot and killed, Ibadi said. His account could not be independently verified, but his home was virtually destroyed, its walls blackened and pockmarked with bullet holes, its roof riddled with large holes.
Col. Fadhil Azzawi, chief of the Hibhib police force, said it was unclear why the Ibadis' home was targeted and described the family as Shiite Muslims. Most of the insurgents linked to Zarqawi, who had called for a war against Shiites, are Sunni Arabs.
Shammari reported from Diyala province.