By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 11, 2006
HIBHIB, Iraq, June 10 -- The two bombs that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, left a strange tomb nestled in the quiet farmland about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
A handful of U.S. soldiers escorted a small group of journalists on the media's first visit to the site on Saturday, walking east across a bridge of palm trunks over a canal of still, green water into the grove of tall Mesopotamian palms where Zarqawi's three-year game of cat-and-mouse with U.S. forces came to an end.
The sight that greeted the visitors was a 600-square-yard wasteland of broken concrete, twisted steel and splintered tree trunks, bound by a wall of cinder blocks that remained largely intact as well as crude irrigation ditches. Scattered in the wreckage were the mundane artifacts of lives that came to an end at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday with the explosion of two 500-pound, laser-guided bombs dropped from an F-16 fighter jet.
The bombs left what one American command sergeant major described as "a big hole." What the bombs did not destroy Wednesday night, U.S. bulldozers did the morning after. In their search for weapons, booby traps and information that would lead them to other insurgents, U.S. troops demolished anything left of the structure, pushing a substantial amount of rubble into what soldiers said had been a 40-foot-deep crater. The blood and the bodies were gone.
In their search through layers of rubble, the troops said they already had uncovered a pair of AK-47 assault rifles, ammunition and grenades, as well as information on computer hard drives and memory sticks that led them to conduct dozens of subsequent raids around Iraq. The only visible sign of this information at the site was part of a battered carrying case for a laptop computer.
There was also a torn leaflet printed by the Mujaheddin Shura Council, the umbrella organization of Sunni Arab insurgent groups, which proclaimed that "the people of the Anbar region are unified in supporting the Koran." Anbar is a restive, predominantly Sunni province west of Baghdad.
Other than that, there was little to suggest that this had once been the lair of a man accused of personally beheading captives and running an insurgent network that has killed thousands of Iraqis.
The residents were obviously Muslims, to judge from the remains of a Koranic verse that proclaimed, "God is the light of the skies and the Earth." The cover of a book titled "The Companions of the Prophet" had also survived the blast. But Zarqawi or his colleagues also apparently read Western magazines: Crumpled pages from an Arabic copy of the May 2 issue of Newsweek also lay scattered about the site.
One of the articles had the headline "The Betrayal of Jesus."
A foam mattress was mostly unscathed, as was a pillow and several blankets. Clothing was scattered across the site; most of it, including a leopard-print slip, appeared to belong to women. U.S. authorities have said that the airstrike killed two women and a child as well as Zarqawi and two other men.
Everything else was smashed to bits: a deformed water cooler, a hammer handle whose head had been blown off, a twisted metal fan, a can of Diet Pepsi that had been sliced open and crushed, and what looked like cracked bathroom tiles. A shiny gold can of olive oil lay in the crater. A broken phone and bits of Iraqi currency complemented the portrait of annihilation.
The contents of a medicine cabinet had also been blown about the site. An aspirin bottle's pills had been pulverized. A tube of a cream called Deep Heat promised "fast relief from aches and pains." And Zarqawi, or one of the others in the house, apparently brushed with Sensodyne toothpaste.
The house, several hundred yards from the nearest neighbor, was in a sector where U.S. troops regularly fight with insurgents who use the palm groves and orchards for cover and escape.
"We knew he was traveling through here," said Lt. Col. Thomas Fisher, commander of the 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Cavalry, whose troops cordoned off the site after the attack. "The thing about Zarqawi was that he never stayed in any place for long."
When Fisher received orders for an urgent mission at 5:50 p.m. Wednesday, his troops were already involved in two other engagements: a firefight at an Iraqi army checkpoint nearby, and another incident south of Zarqawi's hideout where a Humvee had hit a roadside bomb, he said. Fisher moved troops and AH-64 Apache helicopters toward the area, and they set up a cordon along the canal; two tanks also blocked off Highway 2, which runs north-south to the east of the house.
They reached the site about 10 minutes after the bombs struck the house, Fisher said. Local residents were already there, picking through the rubble, he said; so were Iraqi police from a station about two miles away. His troops detained 14 civilians at the scene, he said, and later released them when it was discovered that they were local farmers.
Fisher, of Sioux Falls, S.D., said he had a hunch that Zarqawi had been the target, although he did not know for sure until the next morning. He received a watermelon from the local police chief as a gift when the news got out.
"The biggest thing was that the Iraqis saw that justice prevailed," he said.
Some of the troops, quietly guarding the edges of the house in 100-degree heat, appeared exuberant but were confident that the fighting would go on; others looked slightly bored.
"I was pretty fired up when I found out about it," said 1st Lt. Drew Lorentz, of Newport Beach, Calif., a wad of chewing tobacco lodged in his lower lip. "Personally, I'd like to cut his head off like he did everyone else. But this is good enough."
Walking along the canal back to the helicopters that would take the visiting journalists away, one soldier asked a question.
"Do the people back home really think this is all that important?"
Sure: Zarqawi was the face of the Iraqi insurgency.
"If they need an evil face, how 'bout the Yankees?" the soldier said. "I'm a Red Sox fan."