Two U.S. military forensic specialists finished an autopsy Sunday on the remains of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, part of the investigation to reconstruct the last minutes of his life before an American warplane bombed his hideout, the U.S. Command said.
The examination comes after U.S. authorities altered their account of how the most-wanted terrorist in Iraq died, first saying he died outright in the airstrike but then saying he survived and died soon after.
“The autopsy is completed. However, we are not releasing results yet,” Maj. William Willhoite said.
Meanwhile, Iran denied it helped American forces track al-Zarqawi down and kill him. The Islamic republic welcomed his death, though, because it has close ties to the Shiite parties now dominating Iraq’s government, which al-Zarqawi sought to topple.
“It is natural that we, like the Iraqi people, are happy from this occurrence,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said. “This doesn’t mean that we cooperated with the U.S. in getting him. We had no exchange of intelligence with the U.S. at all (on this).”
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, said Saturday the decision to fly in forensic experts was made shortly after al-Zarqawi’s death. The airstrike also killed five others, including al-Zarqawi’s spiritual adviser, Sheik Abdul-Rahman.
“I think if we don’t do a full autopsy then that might irresponsible on our part,” Caldwell said. “I think we sort of owe that just for this reason: How did he actually die?”
He said the U.S. government thought it was important enough “that we grabbed two people in the last 48 hours and told them pack up and move to Iraq.”
New questions raised
An Iraqi man raised questions about al-Zarqawi’s death, telling AP Television News that he saw U.S. soldiers after the airstrike beating an injured man resembling the dead terrorist until blood flowed from his nose.
Caldwell said he would check that claim. 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 he lives near the house where al-Zarqawi was killed. He said residents put a bearded man in an ambulance before U.S. forces arrived.
“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 the man as Ahmed Mohammed.
No other witnesses have come forward to corroborate the account. U.S. officials have only said al-Zarqawi mumbled and tried to roll off a stretcher before dying.
In announcing al-Zarqawi’s death, the U.S. military said Thursday he was killed outright when two 500-pound bombs were dropped on his hideout. On Friday, the military said al-Zarqawi survived the bombing, which ripped a crater in the date-palm forest surrounding the house just outside Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
“It’s not going to be 100 percent accurate all the time, but the first reports are going to be a little confused. There are going to be some conflicting stories,” Caldwell said, adding that the military should have an accurate chronology ready by Monday.
He said Iraqi police reached the scene first and found the 39-year-old al-Zarqawi alive.
“The coalition forces arrived on the scene. The Iraqi police were there. They in fact saw a person on a stretcher. They moved to that person immediately. A medical person started immediately applying first aid to that person. Another person was trying to talk to that person, to try to identify who this was. They were trying to talk to him and ask him who he was,” Caldwell said.
The airstrike killed two other men, two women and girl between the ages of 5 and 7 who were in the house.
AP footage of the scene showed a wide swath of destruction.
Debris — shoes, sandals, a woman’s slip — was scattered over concrete blocks and twisted metal. Trees were ripped from their roots. Charred dresses, torn blankets, thin sponge mattresses and pillows were in the crater blasted by the bombs. 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 a patrol was 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.”