The Associated Press
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida-linked militant who led a bloody campaign of suicide bombings, kidnappings and hostage beheadings in Iraq, has been killed in a U.S. air raid north of Baghdad, Iraq’s prime minister said Thursday.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said al-Zarqawi was killed along with seven aides Wednesday evening in a house 50 kilometers (30 miles) northeast of Baghdad, in the volatile province of Diyala, just east of the provincial capital of Baqouba, al-Maliki said.
“Today, al-Zarqawi was eliminated,” Al-Maliki told a news conference, drawing loud applause from reporters in the hall where he made the announcement, flanked by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and U.S. Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
He said the air strike was the result of intelligence reports provided to Iraqi security forces by residents in the area, and U.S. forces acted on the information.
“Those who disrupt the course of life, like al-Zarqawi, will have a tragic end,” he said.
Khalilzad added “the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a huge success for Iraq and the international war on terror.”
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 (about euro20 million) bounty on al-Zarqawi, the same as bin Laden.
In the past year, he moved his campaign beyond Iraq’s borders, claiming to have carried out a Nov. 9, 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.
U.S. 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.
U.S. forces believe they just missed capturing al-Zarqawi in a Feb. 20, 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.
U.S. troops twice launched massive invasions of Fallujah, the stronghold used by al-Qaida 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.