WASHINGTON—Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most wanted terrorist in Iraq, was still alive after U.S. jets struck his hideout with two 500-pound bombs, a U.S. general said Friday.
Iraqi police, arriving first on the scene at the isolated farmhouse about 40 miles north of Baghdad, put Zarqawi on a stretcher. U.S. troops, who arrived shortly afterward, first made sure they had the right man, then tried to render first aid.
"Zarqawi attempted to sort of turn away off the stretcher," said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell. "Everybody re-secured him back onto the stretcher, but he died almost immediately thereafter from the wounds he received from the airstrike."
Before he died, Zarqawi "mumbled a little something, but it was indistinguishable and it was very short," Caldwell said.
Zarqawi had waged a campaign of murders, beheadings and suicide bombings for the past three years.
Five other people were killed in the airstrike, including Sheik Abdul Rahman, Zarqawi's spiritual adviser. The others, a man and three women, haven't been identified, Caldwell said.
Initial reports said that a child was among the dead, but Caldwell said the report on Friday didn't indicate that a child was killed.
Military officials have offered few details on the operation, saying only that it started three weeks ago when U.S. troops—widely assumed to have been special operations forces—began tracking Rahman, who eventually led them to Zarqawi.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told CNN on Thursday that the information on Zarqawi came from captured al-Qaida in Iraq sympathizers who were interrogated by Americans.
Caldwell called the operation "a painstaking effort" that involved cooperation between coalition forces, intelligence agencies and "partners in our global war on terrorism," an apparent reference to Jordanian security services.
"There was a lot of information that came in allowing us to build that puzzle that led us to that evening where we were able to ascertain that Zarqawi and Rahman were in that building together," Caldwell said.
In Baghdad, the streets were eerily quiet and largely empty as Friday sermons were canceled, the government imposed an 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. curfew on cars, and residents refrained from celebrating the terrorist leader's demise. U.S. troops with bullhorns patrolled some neighborhoods, urging people not to fire their weapons in the air in celebration.
Police said Friday that they found only five tortured bodies in Baghdad, compared with the usual 30.
In Hibhib, the small town northeast of Baghdad where Zarqawi was killed, life returned to normal, said Muhanned Abdel Kareen, a resident.
Speaking at Camp David, President Bush said he was "thrilled that Zarqawi was brought to justice," but he warned that tough days lay ahead. Bush said he expects that al Qaida will try to regroup in Iraq and kill more people.
"The problem we have in this war is that all they've got to do is kill some innocent people by a car bomb, and it looks like they're winning, see," Bush said. "It takes a major event like an election or the death of Zarqawi to understand that we're making progress."
Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said U.S. forces and Iraq's government had scored a major political and propaganda coup, but he warned that it was unclear what impact Zarqawi's death would have over time.
"Its lasting importance depends on two things: the overall resilience of the insurgency and how well the new Iraqi government can follow up with actions that build a national consensus and defeat and undermine all elements of the insurgency," Cordesman wrote in an article.
Cordesman said Iraq's government needed to bring more minority Sunnis and former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party into the government and security forces, investigate abuses, help rebuild trust in U.S. troops, deal effectively with Shiite militias and clean up Interior Ministry forces, which have been implicated in revenge killings against Sunnis.
Ed O'Connell, a retired Air Force intelligence officer and now a senior defense analyst at Rand Corp., said the events that led to Zarqawi's death started about a year ago "with a highly nuanced (U.S.-led) campaign to separate him from the Iraqi insurgency."
The propaganda campaign emphasized that Zarqawi was a foreigner and claimed that his ultimate interests ran counter to those of Iraqi insurgents. Meanwhile, Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador, started to engage Sunni groups in a political dialogue with Iraq's Shiite-dominated government.
"It was the confluence of those two events that made it happen," said O'Connell, who helped track Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.
But by trying to separate Zarqawi from Iraqi insurgents, the campaign actually pushed him closer to those groups, O'Connell said. In some of the terrorist leader's last videos, his accent became noticeably less foreign and he emphasized a common cause with insurgents, he said.
"It probably opened him up to potential infiltration," O'Connell said.
Three weeks ago, U.S. forces were tipped that Rahman, Zarqawi's spiritual adviser, was likely hiding out in the Baqouba area.
With that kind of information, U.S. forces likely used unmanned Predator aircraft to provide constant surveillance, and intelligence analysts probably began looking for traffic patterns and any sort of "signature" behavior that could provide clues to the terrorist leader's location, O'Connell said. Then small teams of special-operations forces would have set up hidden observation posts until they got positive identification, he said.
Once the fix was made, the F-16s were called in and the bombs were dropped.
(Brown reported from Washington, Youssef from Baghdad.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ ZARQAWI
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): ZARQAWI