BAGHDAD, Iraq - Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaida’s leader in Iraq who led a bloody campaign of suicide bombings and kidnappings, has been killed in an air strike, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Thursday, adding that his identity was confirmed by fingerprints and a look at his face.
It was a major victory in the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the broader war on terror. In a statement President Bush said U.S. forces "delivered justice."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said al-Zarqawi was killed along with seven aides Wednesday evening in a remote area 30 miles northeast of Baghdad in the volatile province of Diyala, just east of the provincial capital of Baqouba, al-Maliki said.
Al-Qaida in Iraq confirmed al-Zarqawi's death and vowed to continue its "holy war," according to a statement posted on a Web site.
"We want to give you the joyous news of the martyrdom of the mujahed sheik Abu Musab al-Zarqawi," said the statement, signed by "Abu Abdel-Rahman al-Iraqi," identified as the deputy "emir" or leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.
"The death of our leaders is life for us. It will only increase our persistence in continuing holy war so that the word of God will be supreme."
Loud applause broke out among the reporters and soldiers as al-Maliki, flanked by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and U.S. Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told a news conference that “al-Zarqawi was eliminated.”
But any hopes the Jordanian-born terror leader’s death would help stem the violence in Iraq were dimmed hours later when a car bomb exploded in a Baghdad market, killing 19 and wounding 65.
The announcement about al-Zarqawi’s death came six days after he issued an audiotape on the Internet, railing against Shiites in Iraq and saying militias were raping women and killing Sunnis and the community must fight back.
Help from Jordan
Al-Maliki said the airstrike was the result of intelligence reports provided to Iraqi security forces by residents in the area, and U.S. forces acted on the information. Casey said the hunt for al-Zarqawi began two weeks ago, and his body was identified by fingerprints and facial recognition.
A Jordanian official said Jordan also provided the U.S. military with information that helped in tracking al-Zarqawi down. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was addressing intelligence issues, would not elaborate, but Jordan is known to have intelligence agents operating in Iraq to hunt down Islamic militants.
Some of the information came from Jordan’s sources inside Iraq and led the U.S. military to the area of Baqouba, the official said.
Baqouba has in recent weeks seen a spike in sectarian violence, including the discovery of 17 severed heads in fruit boxes. It was also near the site of a sectarian atrocity last week in which masked gunmen killed 21 Shiites, including a dozen students, after separating out four Sunni Arabs.
“Those who disrupt the course of life, like al-Zarqawi, will have a tragic end,” al-Maliki said. He also warned those who would follow the militant’s lead that “whenever there is a new al-Zarqawi, we will kill him.”
“This is a message for all those who embrace violence, killing and destruction to stop and to (retreat) before it’s too late,” he said. “It is an open battle with all those who incite sectarianism.”