U.S. officials have altered their account of the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, saying he was alive and partly conscious after bombs destroyed his hideout, and an Iraqi man raised fresh questions about the events surrounding the end of Iraq’s most-wanted militant.
The man, who lived near the scene of the bombing, told AP Television News on Friday that he saw U.S. soldiers beating an injured man resembling al-Zarqawi until blood flowed from the victim’s nose.
When asked about the man’s allegations, military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said he would check. In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Jeffrey Gordon said Saturday he was unaware of the claim.
“We frequently receive allegations which prove to be unsubstantiated,” Gordon said.
The Iraqi, identified only as Mohammed, said residents put a bearded man in an ambulance before U.S. forces arrived. He said the man was found lying next to an irrigation canal.
“He was still alive. We put him in the ambulance, but when the Americans arrived they took him out of the ambulance, they beat him on his stomach and wrapped his head with his dishdasha, then they stomped on his stomach and his chest until he died and blood came out of his nose,” Mohammed said, without saying how he knew the man was dead.
A dishdasha is a traditional Arab robe.
A similar account in The Washington Post identified him as Ahmed Mohammed.
No supporting accounts
No other witnesses have come forward to corroborate the account of a man resembling al-Zarqawi being beaten. U.S. officials have only said al-Zarqawi mumbled and tried to roll off a stretcher before dying.
On Thursday, the U.S. military said al-Zarqawi was killed outright when two 500-pound bombs were dropped on his hideout.
But on Friday, the military said al-Zarqawi survived the bombing, which tore a huge crater in the date palm forest where the house was nestled just outside Baqouba, northwest of Baghdad.
Iraqi police reached the scene first and found the 39-year-old al-Zarqawi alive.
“He mumbled something, but it was indistinguishable and it was very short,” Caldwell, a spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Iraq, said Friday.
Iraqi police pulled al-Zarqawi from the flattened home and placed him on a makeshift stretcher. U.S. troops arrived, saw that al-Zarqawi was conscious and tried to provide medical treatment, the spokesman said.
“He obviously had some kind of visual recognition of who they were because he attempted to roll off the stretcher, as I am told, and get away, realizing it was the U.S. military,” Caldwell told Pentagon reporters via videoconference from Baghdad.
Al-Zarqawi “attempted to, sort of, turn away off the stretcher,” he said. “Everybody re-secured him back onto the stretcher, but he died almost immediately thereafter from the wounds he’d received from this airstrike.”
Caldwell has not mentioned any other physical interaction between U.S. troops and al-Zarqawi.
Blood cleaned off
So much blood covered al-Zarqawi’s body that U.S. forces cleaned him up before taking photographs.
“Despite the fact that this person actually had no regard for human life, we were not going to treat him in the same manner,” Caldwell said.
AP footage of the date palm grove showed debris — concrete blocks, shoes and sandals — scattered over a wide area around a large crater. Trees around the blast site were ripped from their roots.
The airstrike killed two other men, two women and girl between the ages of 5 and 7 who were in the house, but only al-Zarqawi and his spiritual adviser have been positively identified, he said.
From a helicopter hovering above, a wide swath of destruction could be seen. The debris around the site included a women’s slip and other pieces of clothing. Charred dresses, torn blankets, thin sponge mattresses and pillows were in the crater itself.
The debris of concrete blocks and twisted metal reinforcement bars included a pillow with a floral pattern, sandals and a foam mattress with the covering torn off. A cooling unit and part of a washing machine also were in the area.
Lt. Col. Thomas Fisher of the 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Cavalry said his men showed up at the site about five minutes after the blast and cordoned it off. He said they had a patrol in the area already.
“We didn’t know it was Zarqawi, we just knew it was a time-sensitive target,” he said at the scene early Saturday. “We suspected who it was.”
Possible to survive such a blast
Caldwell also said experts told him it is not unheard of for people to survive a blast of that magnitude. He said he did not know if al-Zarqawi was inside or outside the house when the bombs struck.
“Well, what we had found, as with anything, first reports are not always fully accurate as we continue the debriefings. But we were not aware yesterday that, in fact, Zarqawi was alive when U.S. forces arrived on the site,” Caldwell said.
His recounting of the aftermath of the airstrike could not be independently verified. The Iraqi government confirmed only that Iraqi forces were first on the scene, followed by the Americans.
For three years, al-Zarqawi orchestrated horrific acts of violence guided by his extremist vision of jihad, or holy war — first against the U.S. soldiers he considered occupiers of Arab lands, then against the Shiites he considered infidels.