HIBHIB, Iraq—The first thought one has upon seeing the bombed-out site where Iraq's most-wanted terrorist spent his last minutes alive is: How did he survive the attack, even for a minute?
In the midst of the obvious signs of what two 500-pound bombs did to the two-story mud and cement house that once stood here—the 12-foot deep crater filled with rubble and the dozen or so palm trees tipped over and yanked from their roots—there are small clues that nothing was spared by the force of the attack.
There is the bottle of aspirin sitting on top of the debris, still intact even as the pills inside exploded. An unopened can of Diet Pepsi, its side ripped apart. A fan sitting at the bottom of the hole, its blades twisted. And pieces of rubble so tiny, they fit in the pockets of soldiers who grabbed them as souvenirs.
Yet U.S. officials said that after the body of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida of Iraq, was pulled out of the rubble, coalition forces saw him alive long enough for them to administer first aid and ask him his name. He mumbled something unintelligible, and minutes later died, said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell.
On Saturday, U.S. military specialists conducted Zarqawi's autopsy; the results are expected to be announced Monday, Caldwell said. It is uncertain where Zarqawi's body will go next.
U.S. military personnel invited reporters to visit the site of Wednesday's bombing in a small town northeast of Baghdad, in part to answer questions about where and how Zarqawi died and whether nearby civilians were causalities of the attack.
But the carnage at the site juxtaposed to the photos released showing Zarqawi's head intact and with only small abrasions was befuddling.
"Bombs do strange things," said an Iraqi soldier at the site, who did not want to be identified by name.
Part of the 40-foot wide crater has already been filled and much of the debris and evidence cleared. But the breadth and precision of the attack are astonishing.
The 600-meter site was remote. A dense cluster of palm groves and about an 8-foot protective wall, only pieces of which remain now, surrounded the house where Zarqawi was planning to meet his spiritual advisor Wednesday night. On one side of the property are a man-made canal and a large open field. On the other, the only nearby road, about 400 yards away.
The next nearest house is about 300 yards away, said Maj. Mike Humphrey, of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. The heart of Hibhib is a mile away.
For all his U.S. hatemongering, Zarqawi and his cohorts were not averse to using American products in the hideout. Among the remnants found at the site was a box for Sensodyne toothpaste and pages of the May 2 edition of Newsweek Arabic, which included articles with reference to the Bible and Israel and a photograph of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The details about what happened at the site continued to trickle out Saturday and it became clear that the operation was so hurriedly planned that even those on the ground didn't know the significance of it at the time. In Hibhib, Lt. Thomas Fisher said that he did not learn that Zarqawi was the target of the air strike until the next day.
Gen. George Casey, commander of multi-national forces in Iraq, was notified of the air strike minutes before it occurred, Caldwell said.
Caldwell said that six people, including a young girl and two adult women, were killed with Zarqawi. He also said that the officials could not identify the third male who was in the house with Zarqawi and spiritual advisor Abd al Rahman. The unidentified man's body is at the Ministry of Health in Baghdad, he said.
An Iraqi special forces colonel, who refused to give his name, said his unit pulled the woman and child from the rubble the day after the bombing. He estimated the girl was 8 years old. A child's sandal and underwear were among the debris.
Also, there was plenty of evidence that women had lived there, including a leopard-skin nightgown tucked in a back corner, a black handbag and long house gown.
Nearby was a plaque that read: "God is the light of the skies and the Earth."
While the household goods strewn about might give the impression the structure housed a normal family, other scraps shredded that notion. There was a leaflet that referred to the Mujhadeen Shura Council, which al-Qaida had joined earlier this year. And another that referred to a place in the city of Latifiyah as a potential attack site.
There were also scraps of pages from an Arabic grammar book that tackled the most complex nuances of the language. Most students of Arabic do not study the language with such depth. Such lessons are usually reserved for an Islamists who wants to better understand the Koran, which is written Arabic's purest and richest form.
A purported al-Qaida website posted condolence messages from other insurgent groups, many vowing to keep fighting.
"Sons of Islam . . . you should know that the battlefield in Iraq is the first defensive line of Islam and Muslims," in a purported statement from Abdullah Rasheed al Baghdadi, the head of the Mujahdeen Shura Council.
The site then showed the beheading of three Iraqi soldiers who were killed with their uniforms still on. The soldiers were allegedly captured south of Baghdad.
Iraqi Army officers from Hibhib said their town was likely an appealing choice because Iraqi security forces rarely patrolled the area, no more than twice a week, said the Iraqi special forces colonel.
One Iraqi soldier whispered his theory, saying there are a lot of people in the area, particularly Sunnis, who lost their jobs with the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. They were angry and maybe Zarqawi felt he was living among supporters.
"There are many upset people here," said Adel Abid Hussein, 33, an Iraqi soldier.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ HIBHIB