The most wanted terrorist leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed during an air strike by American forces on his isolated safe house north of Baghdad on Wednesday evening. The strike near Baquba came after information on al-Zarqawi’s location was obtained from a videotape he released in April, as well as tips from captured sources in Jordan and inside Iraq.
The death of al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq and the man credited with ordering kidnappings and beheadings and killing thousands with insurgent suicide bomb attacks, was confirmed by U.S. and Iraqi officials. General George Casey, the top American military commander in Iraq, announced at a press conference held with Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, that Zarqawi’s body had been positively identified by fingerprints, facial recognition and known scars on his body. Seven of his associates are also believed to have been killed in the air strike. Officials displayed a photo of the dead terror leader at a briefing on Thursday, but said DNA tests on the body will not be available for 48 hours.
President Bush commented on the death of al-Zarqawi on Thursday morning (June 8) in a Rose Garden speech, saying that “this violent man will never murder again.” Praising the bravery and professionalism of U.S. troops, Bush said the strike was a serious blow to the insurgency in Iraq.
“Osama bin Laden called this Jordanian terrorist the prince of al Qaeda in Iraq,” Bush said. “He called on the terrorists around the world to listen to him and obey him. … Through [al-Zarqawi’s] 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 on free nations.”
Al-Zarqawi, who had a $25 million bounty on his head, is believed to have been undone in part by a brazen videotape he released in April, in which he was seen speaking to the camera inside a home, firing a weapon and walking around with some associates. Acting on tips, U.S. forces were able to pinpoint the location where that tape was shot and famously found a “blooper” reel in which al-Zarqawi was seen struggling to fire his weapon.
The death of the Jordanian-born insurgent leader was hailed by al-Maliki at the press conference. “Today, we have managed to put an end to Zarqawi,” said al-Maliki, who took office three weeks ago as the head of Iraq’s first full-term government since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. According to CNN, officials said they have already zeroed in on the Egyptian man who is believed to be al-Zarqawi’s hand-picked successor and are in the process of hunting him down.
According to The New York Times, al-Maliki said the death should be a warning to other insurgent leaders. “They should stop now,” he said. “They should review their situation and resort to logic while there is still time.”
Casey said the precision air strike that killed al-Zarqawi took out a single home in a densely wooded area north of Baquba. Video of the strike revealed that it involved F-16 fighter jets dropping two 500-pound bombs on the site that officials said they were 100 percent sure al-Zarqawi was inhabiting. The video shown on CNN of the aftermath of the strike depicted a building reduced to a large pile of rubble and twisted metal. The news channel reported that the targeting of al-Zarqawi came after U.S. forces began tracking his spiritual leader, Sheik Abd-Al-Rahman, and traced him to the home where the fatal meeting took place. The strike led to a “treasure trove of information,” according to Major General Bill Caldwell, which in turn led to 17 other raids.
Though his relationship with the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, was reportedly strained and uncomfortable, al-Zarqawi had pledged loyalty to the September 11 terror attack mastermind and he had come to symbolize the Islamic insurgency against the U.S. occupation in Iraq. He had introduced the use of suicide attacks by insurgents in the country and had been an elusive target for coalition forces, slipping through their hands at least once after being captured but not properly identified.
According to CNN sources, al-Zarqawi released the pivotal videotape in April in an attempt to shore up support for his cause, which had been waning in the region due to anger over the bloodshed it was causing to Iraqi civilians. Military experts saw it as a clear tactical error, as it gave away key information on his location, leading troops to his former safehouse, where they found the embarrassing outtakes.
Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari told CNN that in addition to the information obtained from the videotape, a key arrest in Jordan last month may have provided additional information on al-Zarqawi’s location.
Al-Zarqawi pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden in October of 2004 and was believed to be behind a string of deadly attacks, including a triple suicide bombing of hotels in Amman, Jordan in November 2005 that reportedly drew the ire of al Qaeda leaders, who said that such attacks on fellow Arabs was turning the tide against the insurgency (see “Al Qaeda Claims Responsibility For Jordan Bombings; U.S. Vows To Aid Investigation” ).
In addition to ordering dozens of suicide bomb attacks that have killed thousands both inside and outside of Iraq, al-Zarqawi is credited with masterminding several kidnappings of foreigners in Iraq. His voice was also confirmed as that of the knife-wielding man seen in a May 2004 videotape in which kidnapped American businessman Nicholas Berg is beheaded.
Seeking to blunt recent headlines about a Marine massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha that has dominated the news (see “Pentagon Finds Haditha Cover-Up; ’Values’ Training Ordered For Troops” ), Bush credited the operation against al-Zarqawi as one conducted with “courage and professionalism by the finest military in the world.” But the president warned that the death of al-Zarqawi doesn’t mean the end of the difficult mission in Iraq. “We can expect the terrorist and insurgents to carry on without him. We can expect the sectarian violence to continue. Yet the ideology of terror has lost one of its most visible and aggressive leaders. Zarqawi’s death is a severe blow to al Qaeda. It’s a victory in the global war on terror and it’s an opportunity for Iraq’s new government to turn the tide of this struggle.”
[This story was originally published at 7:57 a.m. ET]