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Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Aftermath - U.S. Says Zarqawi Survived Briefly After Airstrike

June 10, 2006
The Aftermath
U.S. Says Zarqawi Survived Briefly After Airstrike
By DEXTER FILKINS

BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 9 — Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist leader killed in an airstrike on Wednesday, initially survived the bombing and died from his wounds after Iraqi police officers and American soldiers arrived on the scene, American officials said Friday.

The news came as American forces, trying to sustain the momentum gathered after Mr. Zarqawi's death, raided dozens of suspected hideouts of Al Qaeda across Iraq. The Americans said they detained at least 25 suspects, and a senior Pentagon adviser said documents, cellphones, passports and computers were also seized. But one of the raids, in a village not far from the spot where Mr. Zarqawi was killed, appeared to cause a number of civilian deaths.

The new material provided the Special Operations force charged with tracking terrorists with fresh intelligence to carry out attacks before insurgents can shift their operations, the adviser said. "They're going full blast right now," he said of the force. He was granted anonymity because of the classified nature of Special Operations missions.

Fears that Mr. Zarqawi's followers would mount a spate of attacks led the government to impose a midday ban on vehicular traffic in Baghdad and a nighttime curfew in Baquba. There were few verifiable reports of violence on Friday.

The Mujahedeen Shura, an umbrella insurgent network that includes Mr. Zarqawi's group, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, claimed to have carried out a number of attacks on American soldiers and on Iraqi officials and security forces. While those attacks could not be verified, the claims, which were posted on jihadi Web sites, demonstrated that insurgent leaders were eager to show that Mr. Zarqawi's death had not put them out of business.

The two 500-pound bombs dropped on the house where Mr. Zarqawi was staying north of Baghdad killed five other people instantly, two men and three women, said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the American military spokesman here.

When Iraqi police officers entered the ruins ahead of the American soldiers, they found Mr. Zarqawi badly wounded but still alive. The Iraqis strapped him to a gurney, General Caldwell said.

American soldiers arrived almost immediately thereafter and quickly identified Mr. Zarqawi, the most hunted man in Iraq, by his scars and tattoos, General Caldwell said. Mr. Zarqawi tried to turn away and roll off the stretcher, the general said, and the American soldiers strapped him back on.

Mr. Zarqawi died "almost immediately" after the Americans arrived, General Caldwell said, but not before mumbling a few unintelligible words.

"Zarqawi did in fact survive the airstrike," General Caldwell said. "Zarqawi attempted to sort of turn away off the stretcher. They — everybody — re-secured him back onto the stretcher, but he died almost immediately thereafter from the wounds he had received from the airstrike."

"As far as anybody else," he added, "the report says nobody else survived."

General Caldwell also disputed some news reports that at least one child had been killed in the airstrike.

Mr. Zarqawi, who is believed to be responsible for the killing of thousands of Iraqi civilians, was meeting Wednesday evening with a spiritual adviser in a secluded house near Hibhib, a village about 30 miles north of Baghdad, when American forces struck.

The killing of Mr. Zarqawi boosted the morale of the Iraqis and Americans trying to build a new democratic state here, which Mr. Zarqawi and his followers had worked so hard to destroy.

The Americans hope that by killing the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, they can disrupt or slow the pace of its suicide attacks and assassinations, which have killed thousands of civilians and helped to poison relations between Sunnis and Shiites. Returning to the details of the airstrike, General Caldwell said American soldiers on the scene "went into the process to provide medical care" to Mr. Zarqawi but it was too late. As Mr. Zarqawi lay dying on the stretcher, General Caldwell said, he tried to speak. But no one could make out what he was saying.

General Caldwell said he was not aware of any evidence to suggest that Mr. Zarqawi had died from any cause other than the wounds he received in the bombing. There was nothing he knew of to indicate that Mr. Zarqawi had been shot, the general said.

He said it was possible for someone to briefly survive the kind of powerful airstrike that hit Mr. Zarqawi. Videos of the attack show the house disappearing in a pair of huge explosions, and photographs taken the next morning showed a pile of rubble and twisted metal.

"There are cases when people in fact can survive even an attack like that on a building," he said. "Obviously, the other five people in the building did not."

Some of the emerging details raised new questions, such as how and why the Iraqi police arrived at the scene of the airstrike before the American commandos who had surrounded the house, and what they did once they arrived. American troops have sometimes stepped aside for Iraqi soldiers or police officers to enter a mosque or other building, but never at places as sensitive as the presumed hiding place of Mr. Zarqawi.

General Caldwell said he hoped to answer some of those questions.

"We're trying to put the exact minutes together from the time that we saw the Iraqi police arrive on site to when the first coalition forces arrived on site, and when they were able to report that they thought he died there," he said. "And we'll provide that — we can put that together. We just don't have it at the moment."

The death of Mr. Zarqawi was announced Thursday, the same day the new prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, completed his cabinet by naming his ministers for defense, interior and national security. American and Iraqi officials hoped the combined good news would bolster public support for Mr. Maliki's government, which faces extraordinary political and military challenges.

Overnight, American officials began trying to capitalize on the intelligence gathered in 17 raids their forces carried out on Al Qaeda hideouts immediately after the death of Mr. Zarqawi. American soldiers and commandos raided 39 more suspected Qaeda hideouts on Thursday night and Friday morning, General Caldwell said. The soldiers arrested 25 people and killed one, he said.

That account was disputed in a village north of Baghdad, where Iraqis said American commandos killed five civilians in a Friday morning raid.

In Ghalibiya, near the scene of Mr. Zarqawi's death, a local Iraqi interviewed by telephone said American commandos dressed in black had raided the hamlet around 4 a.m. The Iraqi, a farmer named Mustafa Muhammad, said a group of local Iraqis, standing guard to protect their predominantly Sunni village from Shiite death squads, fired their guns into the air.

"They thought the Americans were a death squad, dressed in black," Mr. Muhammad said.

The American commandos threw a hand grenade in response, he said, killing five villagers.

"The people were saying that the Americans were looking for Zarqawi loyalists," he said.

Mr. Muhammad said a group of American soldiers wearing regular Army uniforms came to Ghalibiya later in the day to apologize. They promised to provide compensation for the dead Iraqis, he said.

In the course of his briefing, General Caldwell disclosed other important details about the airstrike on Mr. Zarqawi, some of which suggested that it was preceded by an extraordinary sense of urgency.

As American commandos surrounded the house where they believed Mr. Zarqawi to be, the commander on the ground decided to call in the airstrike. It was not clear why the American officer decided against storming the house and capturing Mr. Zarqawi, which would have given the Americans a chance to interrogate him.

One reason, General Caldwell said, was that such an assault might have cost many American lives without any guarantee of taking Mr. Zarqawi alive. Another reason, asserted by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld on Thursday, was that Mr. Zarqawi might have escaped, as he had many times before when the Americans had him in their sights.

"You have to ask yourself: is it worth putting American men and women's lives at risk to go in to what was probably a heavily fortified and guarded thing, in order to grab him?" General Caldwell said.

Just before calling in the airstrike, General Caldwell said, the commander on the ground informed his superior officers of his decision, a process that took "a couple of minutes."

The call for the airstrike went to a pair of F-16's on routine patrol in the skies above Iraq. When the call came, one of the planes was hooked up to an aerial refueling tanker, General Caldwell said. The unencumbered F-16 took off on its own and delivered both 500-pound bombs on Mr. Zarqawi's house.

"The other one couldn't come off the tanker," he said.

At Camp David on Friday, outside Washington, President Bush said he had spoken with Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal to congratulate him on the success of the attack on Mr. Zarqawi. General McChrystal commands the military's most secretive commando units, including the Army's Delta Force and the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, whom several military officials have confirmed were part of the raid.

The Pentagon does not officially acknowledge the existence of these classified units, and President Bush's comments were a rare acknowledgment of the role these troops played in a high-level mission. In Iraq, the units are based in Balad, and over the past year the capture or killing of Mr. Zarqawi has been their primary mission.

Mona Mahmood contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article, and Mark Mazzetti from Washington.