Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist 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 Thursday.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said al-Zarqawi was killed along with seven aides Wednesday evening in a house 30 miles northeast of Baghdad in the volatile province of Diyala, just east of the provincial capital of Baqouba said.
President George W. Bush on Thursday hailed the killing of al-Zarqawi, saying that Americans "can be justly proud" of US fighting men and women.
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 statement 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.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that al-Zarqawi's death is a very important moment for Iraq and a blow to al-Qaeda everywhere.
"The prime minister has told cabinet that this is a very important moment in Iraq. Today's announcement was very good news because a blow against al Qaeda in Iraq was a blow against al Qaeda everywhere," Blair's office said in a statement.
Al-Zarqawi in April 2006 tape (Video: Channel 2)
Iraqi PM: Al-Zarqawi eliminated
"Today, al-Zarqawi was eliminated," al-Maliki told a news conference Thursday, drawing loud applause from reporters as he was flanked by US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and US Gen. George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq.
Al-Maliki said the air strike was the result of intelligence reports provided to Iraqi security forces by residents in the area, and US forces acted on the information.
"Those who disrupt the course of life, like al-Zarqawi, will have a tragic end," he said.
He also warned those who follow the terrorist's lead that "whenever there is a new al-Zarqawi, we will kill him."
"This is a message for all those who embrace violence, killing and destruction to stop and to (retreat) before it's too late," he said. "It is an open battle with all those who incite sectarianism."
Ambassador Khalilzad added "the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a huge success for Iraq and the international war on terror." He also gave a thumbs up and said it was a good day for the United States.
Casey said the hunt for al-Zarqawi began in the area two weeks ago, and al-Zarqawi's body was identified by fingerprints and facial recognition.
The Jordanian-born terrorist, who is believed to have personally beheaded at least two American hostages, became Iraq's most wanted terrorist, as notorious as Osama bin Laden, to whom he swore allegiance in 2004. The United States put a USD 25 million 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 Nov. 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.
Al-Zarqawi - profile
Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi, who was believed to have personally beheaded at least two American hostages, became Iraq's most wanted terrorist, as notorious as Osama Bin Laden, to whom he swore allegiance in 2004. The United States put a USD 25 million bounty on his head, the same as bin Laden.
In the past year, he moved his campaign beyond Iraq's borders, claiming to have carried out a Nov. 9, 2005, triple suicide bombing against hotels in Amman, Jordan, 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 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.
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.