BAGHDAD, Iraq — American special forces were tracking Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of Al-Qaida in Iraq, near the town of Ramadi two months ago, but the Jordanian-born terrorist leader escaped by jumping out of a moving vehicle, a senior U.S. military source tells NBC News.
Al-Zarqawi did, however, leave behind several key pieces of intelligence, the source said, the most important of which was his laptop computer.
Photos released by the military last month were taken from the "My Pictures" folder of that laptop, the source said. It was also full of telephone numbers.
$100,000 in cash
Also left behind in the car was a bag with about $100,000 in euro currency. Another bag contained mini, plug-in hard-drives, the source said, and evidently al-Zarqawi was using these to distribute information to his network in Iraq.
Al-Zarqawi was believed to have been headed to a secret meeting in Ramadi, and the area was being tracked by unmanned Predator reconnaissance aircraft.
Officials now believe that he jumped from a pickup truck and hid below an underpass when a car in front of the pickup was halted at a checkpoint.
Driver was captured
Iraqi officials had earlier revealed that al-Zarqawi's driver had been taken into custody near Ramadi in a Feb. 20 operation and voiced optimism that coalition forces were close to capturing him.
At the Pentagon, other U.S. military officials said special forces have "come close" to capturing al-Zarqawi on several occasions over the past several months and have gathered intelligence, primarily from al-Zarqawi associates caught in the raids.
But even with the setbacks he's suffered, al-Zarqawi is still able to carry out strikes like the recent sophisticated assault on the Abu Ghraib prison, and daily suicide bombings by followers.
At a Pentagon news conference, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would only say, "we were close," but declined to elaborate, citing concerns about disclosing operational details.
"I think in general the intelligence is getting better. Having said that, we still don't have Zarqawi," Myers said.
Questioned about the level of insurgency in Iraq compared to last year, Myers said, “In terms of incidents, it’s right about where it was a year ago.”
Zarqawi, who has a $25 million bounty on his head, is believed to have orchestrated a relentless wave of car bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and beheadings across the country.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said of Zarqawi, that “in terms of lethality, I would rank him quite high,” but added, “I think he is on the run. Life for a terrorist, extremist, is hard.”
NBC's Jim Miklaszewski and Carl Rochelle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.