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Attack on Zarqawi Followed Weeks of Waiting

Iraqis dance with soldiers in Baghdad after hearing Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announce the death of al-Qaida leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, June 8, 2006.
Karim Sahib
AFP/Getty Images
Iraqis dance with soldiers in Baghdad after hearing Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announce the death of al-Qaida leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, June 8, 2006.

Zarqawi's own people led coalition and Iraqi forces to his safehouse, tucked away on a deserted road outside the town of Baquoba, northeast of Baghdad. U.S. military spokesman William Caldwell said that most of the intelligence came from senior Zarqawi aides, and focused on the comings and goings of a man known as Sheik Abdel Rahman.

"He was the spiritual adviser to Zarqawi," Caldwell said. "He was brought to our attention by somebody from within the network of Zarqawi's. We had clear enough evidence about a month and a half ago that allowed us to start necking down to the point we were able to prosecute the action last night against that safe house."

Caldwell then played a black-and-white video showing aerial footage of the house surrounded by date palms, crosshairs at the center of the screen zeroing in on the two-story concrete building. The video shows two 500-pound bombs being dropped on the building.

Iraqi police arrived on the scene soon after, where they found Zarqawi, Abdel Rahman, and the unidentified bodies of four others.

"There's a woman in the group and a younger person -- a child," Caldwell said.

Caldwell then showed two large photographs of Zarqawi's face that were taken shortly after the airstrikes, his closed eyes swollen, his face pale, and blotches of blood on his cheeks. Caldwell said that Zarqawi's body was cleaned up before the photographs were taken.

"The intent was to show you that he had, in fact, died in that explosion," Caldwell said. "But there are far worse graphic pictures that we felt were very inappropriate to share that were the result of the immediate strike."

Once Zarqawi was confirmed killed, security forces raided 17 suspected insurgent hideouts across Baghdad, places they couldn't touch previously because it could have compromised the operation to hunt down Zarqawi. Caldwell says the forces retrieved a treasure trove of documents that will help find other militants.

Zarqawi was the most wanted man in Iraq, and commanded the same reward as Osama bin Laden: $25 million. The State Department said it hasn't yet identified anyone eligible for the reward.

As Iraqis celebrated Zarqawi's death, Caldwell warned that it didn't mean an automatic end to the violence.

"Iraqis can rejoice today," Caldwell said. "They have earned it with their blood, their sweat, their tears. But tomorrow we must continue to march forward."

Caldwell says that Zarqawi knew he would be killed eventually. He is assumed to have appointed a successor. An Egyptian who heads an al-Qaida cell in Baghdad is considered the most likely. Members of Zarqawi's militant group posted a statement on an Islamist Web site saying their leader had died a martyr and that their holy war would continue.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Jamie Tarabay
After reporting from Iraq for two years as NPR's Baghdad Bureau Chief, Jamie Tarabay is now embarking on a two year project reporting on America's Muslims. The coverage will take in the country's approx 6 million Muslims, of different ethnic, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and the issues facing their daily lives as Americans.