BAGHDAD — The trail that led to the death of Abu Musab Zarqawi began with a tip gleaned from inside his Al Qaeda in Iraq organization, military sources said Thursday.
An intelligence source, probably a detainee or defector, revealed that the key insurgent target was often accompanied by a religious advisor named Sheik Abdel Rashid Rahman.
U.S. troops, including special operations soldiers, then used intelligence and electronic surveillance to track Rahman for at least six weeks until he led them Wednesday evening to an isolated house near the village of Hibhib, eight miles west of Baqubah.
Rahman arrived at the house, a two-story stucco or concrete structure with a window in front, about 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, U.S. officials said.
Grainy footage, taken from aboard one of two U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets dispatched to the area, shows a house between two large date palm groves. One of the planes dropped a 500-pound bomb striking the target with an X-shaped burst of rising smoke. Seconds later, as they circled far above the burning site, the same plane dropped another 500-pound bomb, shaking the camera and darkening its image for a moment.
Zarqawi died inside the house, U.S. officials said, along with at least five other people, including Rahman, a woman and a child of unspecified age.
The Jordanian-born insurgent leader was the most wanted man in Iraq, with the U.S. government offering a $25-million reward for information leading to his death or capture.
Zarqawi, also known as Ahmed Khalayleh, was believed responsible for hundreds of deaths. He claimed to have been behind such bloody acts as the beheadings of American Nicholas Berg and Briton Ken Bigley and the bombing of the United Nations compound in the summer of 2003 that killed 22 people, including U.N. Special Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Zarqawi's death represented a victory for intelligence efforts in Iraq by the U.S. and its allies. Officials in Jordan, which suffered a string of hotel bombings last year for which Zarqawi took responsibility, said they played a key role in the manhunt.
In Washington, President Bush delivered a six-minute statement about the death of the Iraq insurgency's icon.
"Now Zarqawi has met his end, and this violent man will never murder again," Bush said.
But the president also cautioned that Zarqawi's death would not quell the violence in Iraq.
"Zarqawi is dead, but the difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues," he said, adding that insurgents would "carry on without him" and that sectarian violence would continue.
Two pictures of Zarqawi's body displayed Thursday by the U.S. military showed the battered face of the Sunni Arab militant. In one of the images, blood could be seen emerging from his nostrils. The top of his shoulders, barely visible in the photograph, were also bloody. He appeared to be lying on a concrete surface, which was covered with blood.
In the other photo, taken four hours later, Zarqawi's head appeared to be resting on a white towel. In both images, his forehead and cheek bore red bruises and abrasions. His eyes were closed.
"We were on his trail; we have been for some time," said Iraqi Army Lt. Gen. Nasier Abadi, an officer posted in Baqubah. "Over a month we received a good lead, and Wednesday we struck gold."
U.S. officials declined to reveal further details about how they tracked down the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, citing their concern for operational integrity for future strikes against the militant group.
But interviews with officials in Washington, Baghdad, Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan, indicate that the raid occurred after a lengthy multinational intelligence effort utilizing interrogations, informants and reporting by U.S. forces.
In the last month, several suspected key Al Qaeda operatives in and around Iraq had been arrested and interrogated. Among them was Kassim Ani, a Zarqawi aide believed to be behind some of the deadliest attacks in Baghdad, who was captured there by Iraqi security forces late last month.
Days earlier, Al Qaeda operative Ziad Khalaf Raja Karbouly was detained in Jordan, where he confessed on television to kidnapping Moroccan Embassy workers and killing a Jordanian truck driver on Zarqawi's orders.
A Jordanian official speaking on condition of anonymity said Thursday that intelligence his country provided to American officials played a decisive role in the Zarqawi raid by helping them identify Rahman, known in Iraq as the mufti of the militant group.
"Yes, this was part of our ongoing efforts to share information with the U.S. about Zarqawi and Al Qaeda," the official said.
U.S. spokesman Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said Thursday that many countries had provided useful information to American forces combating Al Qaeda in Iraq, but singled out Jordan's efforts for special praise.
"Jordan is an extremely good friend and partner and a good friend of the Iraqis as they fight this war on terrorism," he said.