Iraq's Al Qaeda Leader Killed in Air Raid

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda's leader in Iraq who led a bloody insurgency of suicide bombings and kidnappings, was killed in an airstrike north of Baghdad.

President Bush welcomed the news of the killing of al-Zarqawi by military forces in Iraq.

Al-Zarqawi's death "is a severe blow to al Qaeda, and it is a significant victory in the war on terror," Bush said in a news conference at the White House.

"We have tough days ahead of us in Iraq that will require the continuing patience of the American people," he said.

'Eliminated'

Earlier today, Iraq's prime minister in Baghdad confirmed al-Zarqawi's death.

"Today, al-Zarqawi has been eliminated," Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamel al-Maliki said in Arabic amid cheers at a news conference this morning, with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and U.S. Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, at his side.

Al Qaeda in Iraq confirmed the death of the group's leader, according to an Islamist Web site posting.

Al-Zarqawi, the prime minister said, was killed along with seven others, including his spiritual adviser Sheik Al Rahman, Wednesday night, while meeting at an isolated house in the volatile province of Diyala, just east of the provincial capital of Baqouba. Diyala is 30 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Near Misses

Al-Zarqawi's death came six days after the Jordanian-born terror leader appeared in a videotape, urging Sunnis to engage in sectarian violence against Shiites in Iraq.

A secretive organization called Task Force 145, made up of some of the most elite U.S. troops, had one goal: hunting down al-Zarqawi.

U.S. forces and their allies came close to capturing al-Zarqawi several times since his campaign began in mid-2003.

The task force narrowly missed capturing him in April 2006 in a raid about 20 miles southwest of Baghdad.

His closest brush may have come in late 2004. Deputy Interior Ministry Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal said Iraqi security forces caught al-Zarqawi near the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah but then released him because they didn't realize who he was.

In May 2005, online statements by his group said Zarqawi had been wounded in fighting with Americans and was being treated in a hospital abroad - raising speculation over a successor among his lieutenants. But days later, a statement said al-Zarqawi was fine and had returned to Iraq. There was never any independent confirmation of the reports of his wounding.

U.S. forces believe they just missed capturing al-Zarqawi in a Feb. 20, 2005 raid in which troops closed in on his vehicle west of Baghdad near the Euphrates River. His driver and another associate were captured and al-Zarqawi's computer was seized along with pistols and ammunition.

U.S. troops twice launched massive invasions of Fallujah, the stronghold used by al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters and other insurgents west of Baghdad. An April 2004 offensive left the city still in insurgent hands, but the October 2004 assault wrested it from them. However, al-Zarqawi -- if he was in the city -- escaped.

Elusive Despite $25 Million Bounty

Before he appeared on video unmasked, al-Zarqawi was little more than a lethal shadow. In May 2004, Islamic militants released a video showing American hostage Nicholas Berg surrounded by five masked men. The one in the center, dressed completely in black, denounced the American occupation of Iraq before pulling out a large knife and cutting off Berg's head. Intelligence officials say that man was al-Zarqawi. al-Zarqawi was the biggest bogeyman of the American occupation of Iraq.

Washington put a $25 million price on his head -- the same as al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, called him "the most capable terrorist in Iraq."

He was considered the deadliest insurgent in Iraq, credited with countless terrorist attacks in the Middle East and the deaths of as many as 500 people. He is also believed to have participated in the beheading of South Korean translator Kim Sun-Il. In addition, al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the car bomb attacks at the U.N.'s Baghdad headquarters in August 2003, in the Shiite holy city of Najaf that same month, and in Baghdad in June 2004.

Al-Zarqawi was also cited as one of the reasons for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared before the U.N. Security Council, alleging he was the link between al Qaeda and Iraq.

Mysterious Background

Despite the threat al-Zarqawi posed, very little was known about him. The U.S. government's "wanted" notice featured his passport photo, but listed his height and weight as "unknown."

Much of the available information about al-Zarqawi came from intelligence services in Jordan, where Zarqawi was born, and where he had been sentenced and jailed for a number of terrorist crimes.

Al-Zarqawi's jihadi group, known as Attawhid Wal Jihad (Unity and Jihad), or al Tawhid, was initially established to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy. In the 1990s, he spent several years in a Jordanian prison for plotting to replace the monarchy with an Islamic state.

Later, Jordanian courts convicted him in absentia for a millennium plot to kill tourists, and for the October 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

The group claimed the August 2003 bombings of the U.N. Baghdad headquarters and a main Shi'ite shrine in Najaf, as well as a suicide car bomb that killed the head of Iraq's former Governing Council, Izzedin Salim. <[p>

Al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the Nov. 9, 2005, suicide bombings at hotels in Amman that killed 59 people, including guests at a Jordanian wedding at the Radisson SAS hotel.

Wounded in Afghanistan, Then Fled to Iraq

Al-Zarqawi was born Oct. 30, 1966, to Palestinian parents in a refugee camp in Jordan. He takes his name from his hometown ? a dusty mining town 17 miles north of Amman called Zarqa.

Al-Zarqawi is a nom de guerre. His family name is al-Khalayeh, but given name is unclear; it has been cited as Ahmed or Fadel Nazzel. His parents are dead, and reporters have found few living relations.

Locals mainly remember him as a pious youth who dropped out of high school and eventually went to fight in the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s. Upon his return to Jordan, he began associating with militant groups and was jailed for several years.

When he was released, he fled to Europe, eventually returning to Afghanistan and running terrorist camps there. He is said to have specialized in poisons and chemical attacks.

Intelligence sources say al-Zarqawi was fighting against U.S. forces in Afghanistan when they began their campaign shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, and was wounded. They believe he fled to northern Iraq, where he reportedly associated with a group of Kurdish Islamic fundamentalists called Ansar al Islam, which U.S. officials have linked to al Qaeda.

The Most Dangerous Threat in Iraq

Bin Laden appointed al-Zarqawi as his deputy in Iraq after the Jordanian pledged allegiance to him in October 2004, according to intelligence reports. Al-Zarqawi changed his group's name from Tawhid wal Jihad to Al Qaeda Organisation for holy war in Iraq. The United States immediately ordered a freeze on his assets.

In January 2005, the governor of Baghdad, Ali al-Haidri, was assassinated and in April, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi escaped an assassination attempt when a suicide bomber attacked his convoy near his home. Al-Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for both attacks.

The attacks only escalated with the insurgency spearheading its efforts against the U.S. military but more specifically against Iraqi police forces. In February 2005, U.S. officials said they uncovered communications from bin Laden to al-Zarqawi.

In the communiqu├ęs, bin Laden "suggested" al-Zarqawi might be able to help al Qaeda by attacking inside the United States, a counterterrorism official said.

Two other sources said the information was actually delivered to al-Zarqawi by Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's deputy, but that the message was clearly from bin Laden. The communications did not mention any specific targets. And, the official cautioned: "Let's face it. Zarqawi has his hands full in Iraq right now." Indeed, one of his top lieutenants had been captured the week before.

But senior officials say it was a significant discovery -- and a clear message for al-Zarqawi to attack inside the United States.

A month later, Jordan's state security court sentenced him in absentia to 15 years in jail for a plot to attack the kingdom's embassy in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, al-Zarqawi stepped up his efforts to fight coalition forces in Iraq. In an audiotape allegedly from him, he called for more suicide attacks on U.S. forces and vowed not to let President Bush enjoy "peace of mind."

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