BAGHDAD, Iraq—The two F-16 fighter jets had been circling above a remote area west of Baqouba for more than four hours Wednesday evening when the order came for them to lock their weapons onto a small house in the village of Hibhib. The pilots didn't know who was inside, but U.S. commanders were certain that they did: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most wanted man in Iraq.
The commanders ordered the planes to attack. It was 6:15 in the evening, officials said. One of the planes dropped a GBU-12 laser-guided bomb, a precision weapon carrying 500 pounds of explosives that in the first Gulf War won a reputation for hitting its target 88 percent of the time. The house went up in a cloud of dust—its final moments captured by the fighter jet's camera.
Just to be sure, commanders ordered a second strike, and the same plane dropped a second bomb, a 500-pound GBU-38, a weapon that got its first use in combat in 2004, during another effort to kill Zarqawi.
Two minutes later, according to the time stamp on a photo that American officials displayed on Thursday, U.S. officials photographed Zarqawi's lifeless head—pale and with coagulated blood coming from his nose. The time of 6:17 p.m. was stamped in red ink in the bottom corner of the photo.
Thus ended the hunt for a man who'd killed hundreds of Iraqis, beheaded a Pennsylvania businessman in a video that horrified the world and whose name had become synonymous with a savage level of violence in this benighted land.
The cost of the munitions that ended his life, according to descriptions of the weapons: less than $40,000 combined.
Unclear was whether a $25 million reward for information leading to Zarqawi's death or capture would be paid; Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told CNN that the information on Zarqawi came from captured al-Qaida in Iraq sympathizers questioned by Americans. But Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Iraqi television that the reward would be "honored."
Also dead in the house: a man whom U.S. officials described as Zarqawi's spiritual adviser; a woman thought to be Zarqawi's wife; and a boy thought to be his son. Three others also died; U.S. officials didn't identify them publicly on Thursday.
More details are sure to emerge in the coming days about how Americans tracked Zarqawi in his last days, finally ending his reign of terror after several attempts that he'd evaded. Officials guarded many details on Thursday.
They wouldn't say, for example, whether a U.S. team had been on the ground watching the house to be sure Zarqawi was inside. They wouldn't explain how Zarqawi could be photographed so soon after the bombs had dropped.
They did say that Zarqawi's adviser and purported right-hand man, Sheik Abdul Rahman, had unintentionally led U.S. forces to the house.
Gen. George Casey, the commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq and the top U.S. military official in Iraq, said the operation that led to Zarqawi's death began two weeks ago.
Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, the top U.S. Air Force commander in the region, said two F-16C fighter jets were on a routine patrol for four or five hours when they received instructions to bomb the house. "The pilots were passed the intelligence and the coordinates of the target area," he said. "They went over, they analyzed the target area and they dropped on the target."
The two pilots didn't know who was inside except that there "was a HVT—a high-value target—in the building and that it was a high target of interest," he said.
Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Pentagon spokesman, said Zarqawi and the six others inside died from the airstrike.
Shortly afterward, U.S. officials conducted 17 raids around Baghdad and collected a "treasure trove" of information, said U.S. spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell.
Zarqawi's body was transported to a secure location. He was identified by his face, scars and tattoos. Those details were gleaned from Jordanian prison records from when the Jordanian national did time for plotting against his government.
Zarqawi's presence in Diyala province—his home base had been Anbar province, where he once ruled Fallujah—had become frighteningly obvious to many in Iraq recently.
Violence there had surged. Last week, a dozen decapitated heads had been discovered in fruit carts. Travelers were killed at makeshift checkpoints by assailants who tried to weed out and spare the Sunnis. And residents feared talking to longtime neighbors of other sects, unclear of whose homes had been infiltrated.
Diyala, it turned out, was a more difficult place to hide. While Anbar offers protection with its vast area of desert and homogenous Sunni population, Diyala is largely dense farmland and home to many different sects and ethnicities.
The province's governor was horrified by the violence and called for Iraq's new prime minister to declare a state of emergency. On Thursday, the governor, Raad Rashid Jawad, was overjoyed.
"This is a victory for the Diyala province, a victory for the innocent people and for the widows and the orphans," he said.
Both U.S. and Iraqi officials were quick to say that Zarqawi's death doesn't mean an end to the rampant violence that's only increased since 2003. Indeed, Caldwell said U.S. officials believe Zarqawi planned for his death and had a likely successor in mind—an Egyptian national who arrived in Iraq in 2002 and helped establish the network's Baghdad cell.
Many Iraqi politicians tempered their excitement with warnings that no one would know the value of Zarqawi's death for weeks. They said that if violence and sectarian tensions continue to rise, Wednesday's events would be nothing more than a footnote in Iraq's history.
"The problems are bigger than one person," said Mithal Alusi, an independent member of parliament.
But there was also celebration.
"As soon as I heard it, I ran to my friend's next-door shop and told him the news, but he did not believe it. Then he turned on the radio and we listened together to the news, and it was true," said Hassan Fariq, a 16-year-old student in Baghdad. "I fired five shots in the air. We expect progress in the country."
Iraqis had been expecting Maliki to make a major announcement Thursday, but nothing as big as Zarqawi's death. Maliki was expected to finally name the backbone of his government, the new ministers of defense, interior and national security.
When the prime minister walked into his news conference, he looked tired and dispassionate. Minutes before he arrived, Iraqi officials had placed an American flag opposite the Iraqi flag on the podium, unusual for an announcement about internal Iraqi politics. Even more unusual, Maliki entered the room flanked by Casey and Khalilzad.
"Zarqawi has been terminated," Maliki said. The room of reporters erupted into applause.
Then Maliki, usually stern-faced and joyless, did something few had seen him do in the month since he was named prime minister: He cracked a small smile.
A few hours later, the parliament named Jawad al-Bolani, a Shiite independent, minister of interior and a Sunni general, Abdel Qader Jassim, minister of defense. Sherwan al-Waily was named minister of national security.
(Youssef reported from Baghdad, Brown from Washington. Tom Lasseter and Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Huda Ahmed, Mohammed al Awsy and Shatha al Awsy contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-ZARQAWI
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060608 ZARQAWI map, 20060608 ZARQAWI chrono, 20060608 ZARQAWI F16