Iraqi PM: Al-Zarqawi killed in US air raid

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida-linked militant who led a bloody campaign of suicide bombings, kidnappings and hostage beheadings in Iraq, has been killed in a US air raid north of Baghdad, Iraq’s prime minister said today.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said al-Zarqawi was killed yesterday evening, along with seven aides.

Maliki said: “Today, al-Zarqawi was eliminated,” drawing applause at a news conference.

US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said al-Zarqawi’s death marked a great success for Iraq and the global war on terror.

The death was "a good omen for Iraq and for its new government".

A US military spokeman said al-Zarqawi’s body had been identified by fingerprints and facial recognition.

The Jordanian-born militant, who is believed to have personally beheaded at least two American hostages, became Iraq’s most wanted militant, as notorious as Osama bin Laden, to whom he swore allegiance in 2004. The United States put a $25m (€19.6m) bounty on al-Zarqawi, the same as bin Laden.

In the past year, he moved his campaign beyond Iraq’s borders, claiming to have carried out a November 9, 2005 triple suicide bombing against hotels in Amman that killed 60 people, as well as other attacks in Jordan and even a rocket attack from Lebanon into northern Israel.

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

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, web statements by his group said al-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.

US forces believe they just missed capturing al-Zarqawi in a February 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.

US troops twice launched massive invasions of Fallujah, the stronghold used by al-Qaida 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.

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