U.S. and Iraqi forces zeroed in on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi over two weeks, finally tracking his spiritual adviser to the terrorist leader’s doorstep and unleashing the airstrike that killed them both, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Thursday.
The success came after several near misses in the three-year pursuit of Iraq’s most-wanted militant.
Iraqi forces last year reportedly captured al-Zarqawi, then let him go, not realizing it was him. And just last month, al-Zarqawi was said to have leaped from a moving truck to elude U.S. special forces on his tail, an escape filmed by a Predator reconnaissance craft. And another airstrike earlier in the final two-week hunt also missed him, the officials said.
The chase ended Wednesday evening when two 500-pound bombs flattened a modest two-story house surrounded by palm groves and orange orchards outside Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad. A pair of U.S. F-16s on patrol over Iraq were called away for the attack and one of them fired a laser-guided GBU-12 and a satellite-guided GBU-38, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, who commands U.S. and coalition air operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We knew exactly where he was and we chose the right moment,” North told The Associated Press.
The military declined to say whether forces on the ground helped direct the bombs.
Al-Zarqawi died with five others, including a woman, a child and the man who unwittingly led the Americans to him — his deputy and spiritual adviser, Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, according to U.S. officials.
Al-Iraqi was the key to pinpointing the fugitive, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said.
Intelligence officials identified al-Iraqi with the help of an insider in al-Zarqawi’s network and began tracking his movements, waiting for him to meet with his boss, Caldwell said.
“Last night, he made a linkup (with al-Zarqawi) again at 6:15, at which time a decision was made to go ahead and strike that target and eliminate both of them,” Caldwell told reporters in Baghdad.
On Thursday, al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq group issued a Web statement confirming his death. It was signed by Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, perhaps to spread confusion over whether he was really killed. But Caldwell and the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, told reporters that al-Iraqi was among the dead. North said a DNA test would confirm the identity in days.
Raids by Iraqi and U.S. units on insurgent strongholds southwest of Baghdad in the past six weeks also uncovered evidence of al-Zarqawi’s whereabouts, said Col. Todd Ebel, commander of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. They showed he had been moving through the area to coordinate attacks in Baghdad, he said.
Net tightened two weeks ago
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the hunt began to close in on al-Zarqawi two weeks ago, when Iraqi intelligence received reports on his movements.
He said information from Iraqis living in the Baqouba area helped in the search, and in Washington, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow implied that al-Zarqawi had severely alienated the populace in recent days.
“Zarqawi moves into Baqouba, into an area called Hibhib. And what happens? Over the weekend, they found nine heads in a box. They beheaded people and left the heads in a box. They hijack a bus full of students and they slaughter the students.
“That’s what Zarqawi brought to Baqouba.”
There was one near miss during that time: “An operation was carried out striking a particular target in the belief that he was present there, but it turned out he had left,” al-Maliki said, without elaboration.
Wednesday’s airstrike ended a hunt that involved hundreds of soldiers, spies, tipsters and intelligence analysts and cost more than $500 million, said Ed O’Connell, a retired Air Force intelligence officer who led manhunts for Osama bin Laden and top insurgents in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.
U.S. troops chasing al-Zarqawi included Special Operations Task Force 145, operating out of Balad air base north of Baghdad, O’Connell said by telephone from Washington.
Help from ambassador
What may have changed the Americans’ luck was U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s efforts to mend relations with Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs, alienated by the U.S. invasion and by the new Shiite-dominated government.
“Khalilzad shaped the environment so they could open lines of infiltration,” O’Connell said.
At the same time, the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi, stung by U.S. efforts to deride him as a foreigner killing Iraqis, began cozying up to Sunni insurgents. That was probably his undoing, since Khalilizad was doing the same thing, O’Connell said.
“Once that happened, all we needed was a guy inside the insurgency to tell us where he was and, bam, we got him,” he said.
Previous close calls
U.S. special forces had been closing in. Last month, they were chasing al-Zarqawi, who jumped from a moving truck and fled in another vehicle, O’Connell said.
The closest call may have come in late 2004. Deputy Interior Ministry Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal said Iraqi security forces caught al-Zarqawi near the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah but released him, not realizing his true identity.
In May 2005, Web statements by al-Qaida in Iraq said al-Zarqawi was wounded fighting with the Americans and was being treated in a hospital abroad. But days later, a statement said he was fine and back in Iraq.
The reports he had been wounded were never independently confirmed.
U.S. forces believe they just missed capturing al-Zarqawi in a Feb. 20, 2005, raid in which troops closed in on his vehicle west of Baghdad near the Euphrates River. His driver and another associate were captured and al-Zarqawi’s computer was seized along with pistols and ammunition.
American forces twice launched moved against Fallujah, the stronghold used by al-Qaida in Iraq fighters and other insurgents west of Baghdad. An April 2004 offensive was aborted, leaving the city in insurgent hands, but the November 2004 assault wrested it from them.
However, al-Zarqawi — if he was in the city — escaped.
After Wednesday’s airstrike, U.S. officials were eager to prove they got their man, displaying a photo of his face at a Baghdad news conference. Fingerprints, tattoos and scars all helped confirm the identity.
“The strike last night did not occur over a 24-hour period,” Caldwell said. “It was a truly long, painstaking, deliberate exploitation of intelligence, information-gathering, human sources, electronic and signals intelligence.”