A long trail to finding Zarqawi

Weeks of gathering a broad range of intelligence led to the successful strike.

Before two 500-pound bombs were dropped onto a small house north of Baghdad Wednesday, American military officials "had absolutely no doubt whatsoever" that they had at last found their man.

The statement by Maj. Gen. William Caldwell was as provocative as it was vague. The effort was, he told reporters, an "exploitation of intelligence, information gathering, human sources, electronics, [and] signal intelligence that was done over ... many, many weeks."

Yet the details of what is perhaps the coalition's greatest tactical success of the war were largely omitted or conspicuously avoided. The certainty exuded by General Caldwell - and the success of the air strike - points to a deep penetration into whatever security measures Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had relied on to stay alive.

How the coalition managed to finally pin down a man who had become renowned for his hairsbreadth escapes, however, is a story that is only beginning to emerge.

What is certain at this point is that at 6:15 p.m. Iraqi time, American fighter jets dropped two bombs on a house near Baquba. Iraqi police were the first at the site after the bombing. Coalition troops arrived soon after. They confirmed that Mr. Zarqawi was dead, identifying him by fingerprints, facial features, and known scars and tattoos.

In his press conference, Caldwell insisted on spreading the credit as widely as possible, acknowledging both Iraqi and American contributions. Indeed, the immediate scramble to discover how coalition forces connected the dots leaves much unanswered.

In his speech announcing the success of the strike, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the operation was based upon tips given to Iraqi soldiers by local informants.

For his part, Caldwell said that US forces had been tracking Zarqawi's spiritual adviser, Sheikh Abdul-Rahman, who inadvertently led them to the safe house outside Baquba where he and Zarqawi were meeting when they were killed. Jordanian officials also claim a role in locating Zarqawi, who is from Jordan.

"The investigation and search for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, from early stages of the operation, involved security collaboration between all concerned parties, particularly Jordanian Security agencies, that helped trace the sites that Zarqawi and his group frequently stayed at," noted a statement released Thursday by Naser Joudeh, a government spokesman.

For coalition forces, however, a successful tip would offer dramatic evidence that local citizens are more eager to offer useful information. "We've heard so much about the 4,000 actionable tips we're getting each day," says Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's about time that one was actually reliable enough to act."

In fact, Wednesday's strike was just the latest in a string of actions against Zarqawi. In June 2004, military officials said they believed they might have blown up a building just as Zarqawi was walking into it.

Aerial surveillance showed a man at the entrance being thrown backward by the explosion, then being shuffled off by colleagues into a convoy of cars. Though they could never identify the man as Zarqawi, he was the only man known to have such a large retinue.

In 2005, he barely escaped a US checkpoint that apprehended two of his colleagues and his computer, which had many photos of him in the "My Pictures" folder. At the time, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers said in a Pentagon briefing: "We were close."

Yet it was another set of pictures of Zarqawi that appear to have set this week's action in motion. Hindsight shows the net was tightening since late April, when he took the confident step of releasing a video that showed him planning operations in the deserts of Iraq.

Less than two weeks later, the US called a press conference in which it aired, essentially, Zarqawi's blooper reel, showing him struggling to fire a heavy machine gun and wearing sneakers.

While the attempt to humiliate him was a bit of a sideshow, it was evidence that his array of safe houses were being exposed. The tapes were seized in a house about 10 miles south of Baghdad, where followers of Zarqawi have been killing Shiites and their enemies for over two years.

For about a month, rumors have been swirling that Zarqawi was in Baquba. In the past few weeks, it had seen a spike in attacks on Shiite civilians, a central Zarqawi tactic to foment civil war.

Caldwell said US and Iraqi forces had been watching 17 different areas in and around Baghdad to work out Zarqawi's movement patterns during the past few weeks. After confirming that Zarqawi had indeed been killed, US forces moved in on all 17 locations, and Caldwell said they've found a "treasure trove" of information.

The Pentagon has been reticent to offer details on the operation. A part of the reason, Caldwell confirmed, is that United States special-operations forces were involved in Wednesday's strike. As a rule, the Pentagon does not comment on the activities of its special-operations forces.

Yet he and other US officials acknowledged that the final break in tracking down Zarqawi came from someone within his own network. Caldwell declined to say if this information was volunteered or came from an insurgent under interrogation.

Determining whose clue led to what action, might determine if anyone receives the $25 million reward that the US put on Zarqawi's head.

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