In the most significant military event in Iraq since the capture of Saddam Hussein in late 2003, US aircraft dropped two 500-pound bombs, killing the man Osama bin Laden called Al Qaeda's "prince" in Iraq.
Many Iraqis Thursday welcomed the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, who is both an icon and the operational chief of the Sunni insurgency.
He has been the mastermind of dozens of suicide bombings, kidnappings, and other attacks that have ignited a vicious sectarian war between Iraq's majority Shiites and the Sunni minority.
"It's good news, because al-Zarqawi is the symbol of terrorism, and all the tragedies and sectarian fighting are because of him," says Ali al-Obeidi, a Baghdad pharmacist, whose shop was shaken by yet another bomb Thursday. "The free flow of Iraqi blood has started to stop, because Zarqawi is dead."
Zarqawi's network of followers - stretching across the Middle East and to Europe - has been dealt a major blow. "He had become more dangerous than Osama bin Laden ... because bin Laden prefers to hide in the safety and comfort of some cave in Afghanistan or Pakistan," says M. J. Gohel, a terrorism expert and head of the Asia-Pacific Foundation in London. "Zarqawi was risking his life on the battlefield. He was able to recruit personnel and raise funds throughout the world."
It is too soon to know precisely how Zarqawi's death will change Iraq's insurgency, experts say, but his influence on global jihad - Al Qaeda websites praised their martyr's rise to paradise - is likely to continue to inspire some militants, say experts.
US aircraft bombed a meeting of Zarqawi and several top aides - including Zarqawi's spiritual guide - at a safe house some 30 miles northeast of Baghdad. Video footage Thursday showed people pulling pieces of clothing from piles of rubble at a site surrounded by palm trees.
"Today Zarqawi has been terminated," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced to applause from Iraqi journalists. Cel- ebratory shooting erupted in some Baghdad neighborhoods. "Every time a Zarqawi appears, we will kill him. We will continue confronting whoever follows his path. It is an open war between us," said Mr. Maliki.
Zarqawi carried a $25 million price on his head, the same set by the US government for Mr. bin Laden. US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad on Thursday called Zarqawi the "godfather of sectarian killing in Iraq," and warned of "difficult days ahead" as militants seek revenge.
The death of the Jordanian-born Zarqawi will resonate far beyond Iraq's borders. "Al-Zarqawi has developed a major following right across the globe among jihadis - he has supporters in Asia, Africa, and Europe," says Mr. Gohel, the terrorism expert in London. "The litmus test is how much terrorist-related violence will die down in Iraq after his death," he adds, noting that violence in Iraq has many facets, including criminal and Baathist elements. Still, no apparent successor appears ready to fill Zarqawi's shoes.
"It would take someone else several years to develop the kind of profile that Zarqawi achieved in quite a short time," says Gohel. "It is very unlikely that any other figure can replace him, in terms of rallying militants to global jihad."
Analysts expect an insurgent backlash, but by nightfall Thursday it appeared to be a relatively typical day of carnage in the Iraqi capital: two bombs had left 15 people dead and 36 wounded.
"The violence will escalate, because Al-Zarqawi's ... jihadi mindset is [more radical] than other resistance groups," says Rahim Daoud, a nonmilitant Iraqi who believes in the extreme Sunni Salafi ideology shared by Al Qaeda. "But all the resistance agrees to work militarily against the occupation."
Mr. Daoud explains that Zarqawi did not believe he was killing innocent people in his attacks - which is forbidden in Islam - because his higher overarching purpose was to conduct jihad."Some [Shiite] militias in the government kill people with drills; why doesn't the government do anything about the killing of those 'innocents'?"
Three key ministers appointed, too
Iraq's fractious government took advantage of the news to announce nominees to head three key ministries - defense, interior, and national security. Parliament approved them quickly, in a move that Iraqis hope will enable Mr. Maliki's government to stem the insurgency.
"This is the best birthday present the Maliki government could have dreamed of," says Toby Dodge, an expert at Queen Mary University of London. He says a "confluence" of the removal of Zarqawi, and the replacing of controversial interior minister Bayan Jabr - who was accused of running Shiite death squads during his tenure - could yield a small window of opportunity for the government.
But, he warns, Zarqawi leaves an entrenched legacy. "Zarqawi has pioneered this brutal sectarianism and this intense Salafism, and [his death] will deal a psychological blow to that," says Mr. Dodge. "But Zarqawi has been indigenizing his network, from a few hundreds of Iraqis to a few thousands.... His lieutenants will strike back, and his transnational network will try to lash back, if not in the next week or two, then in the coming months."
Those moves are likely to play out in savage ways, if his supporters adopt Zarqawi's practices. "He is known to be more cruel than any other part of the insurgency," says Wamidh Omar Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "Zarqawi does not care about the blood of innocent people - he did not believe, like [former Chinese Communist leader] Mao Zedong, that insurgents should be fish swimming in the friendly sea" of the population.
"Most insurgents, whether they like it or not, are linked to [Zarqawi's] name," says Mr. Nadhmi. "It's a personality cult. There is no other name of an Al Qaeda leader in Iraq that [anyone] might know."
Previous claims of Zarqawi's death or injury have proven to be wrong. Even on the eve of the US invasion, in February 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told the UN Security Council that the presence of Zarqawi in Baghdad - apparently in hospital to have a wounded leg amputated - was evidence of the regime's ties to Al Qaeda. Those allegations were never proved; in an April video, Zarqawi walked easily, without an apparent limp.
Explaining the results of the airstrike, US military officials on Thursday displayed a large portrait of Zarqawi's dead face, to remove any public doubt. Fingerprint and other tests led to a positive identification, they say, and DNA confirmation is due as early as Friday.
Zarqawi is believed to have personally beheaded on video American hostages Nicholas Berg and Eugene Armstrong, in April and September 2004. US and Iraqi officials say he was behind the August 2003 bombings of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, and the killing beside a Shiite shrine in Najaf of moderate Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakkim - events which marked the start of the insurgency.
Since then, Zarqawi has won loyalty among some insurgents for decisive and uncompromising action. But US intelligence officers say that Zarqawi's ruthless tactics also alienated some insurgent fighters, and even brought a condemnation - in the form of a letter that questioned the utility of videotaped beheadings of hostages, and killings of civilians - from Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Maj. Gen. Richard Zahner, the top US military intelligence officer in Iraq, says that after the destruction of a key Shiite shrine in February, Zarqawi came close to his dream of an all-out civil war. In an interview before Zarqawi's death, General Zahner said there were growing indications that former supporters who admired Zarqawi's attacks on the US had come to hate him for targeting civilians.
This "addiction to violence," he said, had been undermining Zarqawi's support, just as the massacres by the Salafist GIA in Algeria ultimately led to that group's demise.
But some Iraqis question whether Zarqawi's death will reverse the violence. "These things always happen; [insurgents] have increased the pace of their work against humanity," says a police lieutenant at the site of a roadside explosion Thursday. "When you lose the commander, the followers will feel fatigue. But they will continue their attacks."
"When you cut the head of a snake, it will die," counters Mr. Obeidi, the pharmacist across the street. "Zarqawi gives them reason to kill, because he is the strongest one, and the terrorists follow him. Without him, they don't have such strong reasons to kill and fight."
• Staff writer Dan Murphy and Awadh al-Taee in Baghdad contributed to this report.