Quiet suburb remembers the hoodlum who is now America's most wanted man in the Middle East

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This two-storey house in the rundown, deeply conservative, Kassarat neighbourhood of Zarqa in Jordan is the family home of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the one-time local hoodlum turned born-again jihadist and the most wanted man in the Middle East.

A disembodied voice which may have been that of Zarqawi's sister-in-law, Um Sayel, said through the intercom: "You are talking to a woman. Please don't stay near our house. We have nothing to tell you." A boy of perhaps nine years old, possibly the son of Zarqawi's brother Mohammed, who a neighbour said was still living in the house, silently emerged through the front door to put the rubbish out. Otherwise there was no sign of life.

The household's reticence is hardly surprising; it may reflect a wider desire by Zarqa residents, after Wednesday's triple suicide bombing, to shake off the town's association with its notorious son. For the assumption, in much of Jordan as well as in the West, that Zarqawi was behind the atrocity is so widespread that few if any of his neighbours seemed anxious to profess knowledge of the family at No 13.

This had been a search that had confounded normality; the closer you got to the house, the fewer the people prepared to say they knew where the family lived. Even his next-door neighbour, Munder Momani, 38, who moved in with his wife and three children three months ago, professed ignorance of their identity until his wide-eyed 10-year-old daughter Anwar blurted out that next door was "the house of Abu Musab".

Inside his house, at least, Mr Momani was emphatic in condemning the bombings. He said that he had attended demonstrations in the capital, Amman, against them. "Whoever did this is a bastard. I don't think that he can have been a Jordanian," he said.

His wife, Um Mahoud, was more forthright still. "May God take revenge on the criminal who did this. How do you know he was not a Jordanian? Only God knows, but whether he's Jordanian or not, he is a bad man. They kill children. We could not eat after what we saw on TV."

What, then, did those who knew him recall of the man from this sprawling industrial city with a $25m bounty on his head and described by the former US secretary of state Colin Powell as being, after Osama bin Laden, with whom he is said to have linked up in the early Nineties, as "Public Enemy Number Two"?

The reception from worshippers ending Friday prayers at the local Falah mosque, where the imam made no mention of the bombings (in contrast to condemnatory sermons in Amman) was initially polite but reticent. Then a keffiya-clad senior member of the laity shooed us away angrily. "You invaded our country," he said. "Now you are desecrating our mosque."

But over tea and coffee in a nearby house, men of Zarqawi's generation were more candid. Ammar Hassoun, 35, knew him in their youth - before Zarqawi became religious when he went to fight in Afghanistan in the 1980s - as a "thug", two years older than himself. He said: "I wouldn't say I liked him or disliked him. We had normal relations. He carried a knife and he liked to show off his muscles." But he had become more distant, said Mr Hassoun, when he last saw him "after King Hussein died [in 1999]", when Zarqawi was released by King Abdullah in 2000 after four years in a Jordanian prison and returned briefly to Zarqa before disappearing in Jordan, reportedly to Afghanistan and then to northern Iraq to join Sunni insurgents.

While most of the men chorused their condemnation of the occupation of Iraq and their approval of armed resistance to it, Fendi Awashe, a 28-year-old civil engineer, was unequivocal in condemning Wednesday's bombings, the large majority of whose victims were Jordanians or Palestinians. "If it is true that this attack was carried out by Zarqawi, then it is a very bad act. He should go to hell, and al- Qa'ida too," he said.

For Moussa Rashid al-Khalayleh, a Jordan parliamentarian who prides himself on good relations with his government, Zarqawi had already been something of an embarrassment before Wednesday's bombing. For he and Ahmad Fadl Nassal al-Khaliyleh (Zarqawi's real name) are both members of the same 8,000-strong al-Falah sub-tribe. His richly carpeted house, a few miles outside Zarqa, surrounded by olive groves and furnished with low settees in the Bedouin style, is decorated with a picture of himself with Saddam Hussein in 2000, as well as two with King Abdullah. He too believes that the American occupation of Iraq was a "very grave mistake", that Iraq needed a strong dictator like Saddam to hold it together, and that he cannot oppose "resistance to the occupation". But as a self-professed "moderate Muslim" he condemns attacks on civilians, and suggests that the bombings, "this criminal, despicable incident", may be more of a long-term blow to al-Qa'ida than to Jordan, by turning susceptible young men away from such actions.