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The military swiftly hit its target

Compiled from Times wires
Published June 9, 2006

1. INTELLIGENCE CONFIRMS Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s location by following his spiritual adviser, Abu Abdul-Rahman, shown here, to Zarqawi’s safe house.
2. AMERICAN WARPLANES are deployed to the target site.
3. THE TARGET IS ACQUIRED and the F-16s drop two 500-pound bombs on the isolated safe house where Zarqawi was staying.
4. TARGET DESTROYED along with its six occupants, including Zarqawi and his spiritual adviser. Zarqawi's body is identified in the rubble.
5. PRESIDENT BUSH said Thursday that the death of al-Qaida leader Zarqawi is "a severe blow" to the al-Qaida terrorist network

BAGHDAD - Muhammad Ismael, a 40-year-Iraqi taxi driver, was standing outside his home in the tiny village of Hibhib on Wednesday evening when something unusual caught his eye.

Three GMC trucks, each with blackened windows, rumbled past his home and toward the little house that for more than three years had stood abandoned.

"It was something very strange," Ismael said Thursday. "That house is always empty."

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, U.S. military commanders believed they had at last cornered Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist whose murderous onslaught against Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops made him the most wanted man in all of Iraq.

For the first time, the U.S. officials said they believed, they had a source deep inside his terrorist group, al-Qaida in Iraq. Zarqawi, the source told them, was in the little house in the village outside Baqubah.

U.S. jets were in the sky above.

In recent weeks, U.S. officials said, they had begun following a man they believed could lead them directly to Zarqawi: his "spiritual adviser," a man named Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi. A member of Zarqawi's network had told them that the sheik was Zarqawi's most trusted adviser.

"This gentlemen was key to our success in finding Zarqawi," said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad. "Through painstaking intelligence effort, they were able to start tracking him, monitoring his movements and establishing when he was doing his link-ups with Zarqawi."

Yet for all the excitement, one critical piece of the puzzle remained: The Americans might be able to track al-Iraqi, but how would they know when he was with Zarqawi?

The Americans had gotten close before, but Zarqawi managed to escape. He was an elusive and wary figure. What the Americans had lacked was someone inside Zarqawi's network who would betray him.

In a news release on Thursday morning, U.S. military commanders hinted strongly that a member of Zarqawi's inner circle had pointed the way.

"Tips and intelligence from Iraqi senior leaders from his network led forces to al-Zarqawi," it said.

Iraqi officials confirmed that Zarqawi had indeed been sold out by one of his own.

"We have managed to infiltrate this organization," said Mowaffak al-Rubiae, Iraq's national security adviser. He declined to elaborate.

Raids by Iraqi and U.S. units on insurgent strongholds southwest of Baghdad in the past six weeks also uncovered evidence of 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.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the hunt began to close in on Zarqawi two weeks ago, when Iraqi intelligence received reports on his movements.

He said information from Iraqis living in the Baqubah area helped in the search, and in Washington, White House press secretary Tony Snow implied that Zarqawi had severely alienated the populace in recent days.

"Zarqawi moves into Baqubah, 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 Baqubah."

In Baghdad, U.S. military officials decided to launch a military operation. At a stroke, they called in a pair of F-16 fighter jets that were patrolling the skies above the area.

For the first time, U.S. officials believed they had located Zarqawi with absolute certainty.

"We had absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Zarqawi was in the house," said Caldwell, the spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad. "There was 100 percent confirmation."

One of the F-16s, in position over Hibhib, released a laser-guided 500-pound bomb.

Seconds later, a second 500-pound bomb landed on the house. Zarqawi was dead by the time U.S. commandos got to the house, Caldwell said. The military declined to say whether forces on the ground helped direct the bombs.

Five others died in the airstrike: al-Iraqi, one woman, one child, and two other men, Caldwell said. The identities of the four were not known.

The decision to bomb Zarqawi was made in large part because military officials feared he might escape if U.S. and Iraqi forces moved in on the ground, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said during an appearance at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

"They came to the conclusion that they could not really go in on the ground without running the risk of letting him escape," he said. "So they used airpower and attacked a dwelling he was in."

The success came after several near misses in the three-year pursuit of Iraq's most-wanted militant.

Deputy Interior Ministry Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal said Iraqi forces last year captured Zarqawi, then let him go, not realizing it was him. And just last month, Zarqawi was said to have leaped from a moving truck to elude U.S. special operations 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, Maliki said, without elaboration.

Zarqawi's corpse was taken to an undisclosed location where an examination found scars and tattoos that matched those he was known to have. A fingerprint test positively identified Zarqawi, 39, and DNA tests should also be returned within two days, Caldwell said.

On Thursday, 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. U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Gary L. North said a DNA test would confirm his identity in days.

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.

"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."

Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.

[Last modified June 9, 2006, 06:34:35]

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