Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qa'ida's leader in Iraq who led a bloody campaign of suicide bombings and kidnappings, has been killed in an air strike, US and Iraqi officials said today, adding his identity was confirmed by fingerprints and a first-hand look at his face. It was a major victory in the US-led war in Iraq and the broader war on terror.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said al-Zarqawi was killed along with seven aides last night in a remote area 30 miles northeast of Baghdad, in the volatile province of Diyala, just east of the provincial capital of Baqouba, al-Maliki said.
Loud applause broke out as al-Maliki, flanked by US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and US Gen. George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, told reporters at a news conference that "al-Zarqawi was eliminated."
The announcement came six days after the Jordanian-born terror leader issued an audiotape on the internet, railing against Shiites in Iraq and saying militias are raping women and killing Sunnis and the community must fight back.
Al-Maliki said the air strike was the result of intelligence reports provided to Iraqi security forces by residents in the area, and US forces acted on the information.
Baqouba has in recent weeks seen a rise in sectarian violence, including the discovery of 17 severed heads discovered in fruit boxes. It was also near the site of a sectarian atrocity last week when masked gunmen killed 21 Shiites, including a dozen students.
"Those who disrupt the course of life, like al-Zarqawi, will have a tragic end," al-Maliki said. He also warned those who would follow the militant's lead that "whenever there is a new al-Zarqawi, we will kill him."
"This is a message for all those who embrace violence, killing and destruction to stop and to (retreat) before it's too late," he said. "It is an open battle with all those who incite sectarianism."
Khalilzad added "the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a huge success for Iraq and the international war on terror." He also gave a thumbs up and said it was a good day for America.
Casey said the hunt for al-Zarqawi began in the area two weeks ago, and al-Zarqawi's body was identified by fingerprints and facial recognition.
The Jordanian-born militant, who is believed to have personally beheaded at least two American hostages, became Iraq's most wanted militant, as notorious as Osama bin Laden, to whom he swore allegiance in 2004. The United States put a US$25 million bounty on al-Zarqawi, the same as bin Laden.
US forces in Iraq said the killing was a major victory.
"We killed him, and it's always great when you can remove someone that has caused this much harm," said Maj. Frank Garcia, public affairs officer for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. "We're one step closer to providing stability to the region."
Iraqis had mixed reactions.
Thamir Abdulhussein, a college student in Baghdad, said he hopes the killing of al-Zarqawi will promote reconciliation between Iraq's fractured ethnic and sectarian groups.
"If it's true al-Zarqawi was killed, that will be a big happiness for all the Iraqis," he said. "He was behind all the killings of Sunni and Shiites. Iraqis should now move toward reconciliation. They should stop the violence."
Amir Muhammed Ali, a 45-year-old stock broker in Baghdad, was skeptical that al-Zarqawi's death would end the unrelenting violence in the country, saying he was a foreigner but the Iraqi resistance to US-led forces would likely continue.
"He didn't represent the resistance, some one will replace him and the operations will go on," he said.
In the past year, al-Zarqawi moved his campaign beyond Iraq's borders, claiming to have carried out a 9 November 2005 triple suicide bombing against hotels in Amman that killed 60 people, as well as other attacks in Jordan and even a rocket attack from Lebanon into northern Israel.
US forces and their allies came close to capturing al-Zarqawi several times since his campaign began in mid-2003.
His closest brush 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 then released him because they didn't realize who he was.
In May 2005, web statements by his group said al-Zarqawi had been wounded in fighting with Americans and was being treated in a hospital abroad - raising speculation over a successor among his lieutenants. But days later, a statement said al-Zarqawi was fine and had returned to Iraq. There was never any independent confirmation of the reports of his wounding.
US forces believe they just missed capturing al-Zarqawi in a 20 February 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.
US troops twice launched massive invasions of Fallujah, the stronghold used by al-Qa'ida in Iraq fighters and other insurgents west of Baghdad. An April 2004 offensive left the city still in insurgent hands, but the October 2004 assault wrested it from them. However, al-Zarqawi - if he was in the city - escaped.