- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

In the end, the three-year manhunt for Abu Musab Zarqawi came down to tracking his best friend, a spiritual adviser who regularly visited the al Qaeda in Iraq leader as he moved from hide-out to safe house.

On Wednesday, the U.S. military and intelligence services shadowed Sheik Abdel Rahman as he drove west from Baghdad to an isolated farmhouse near the town of Baqouba in the Sunni Muslim stronghold of Diyala, one of Iraq’s most violent provinces. Waiting for him inside was Zarqawi. A meeting on the next terror targets ensued.

By dinnertime, the U.S. military had a fix on the house and concluded that the “prince of al Qaeda in Iraq,” as Osama bin Laden had anointed Zarqawi, was there. An attack was planned, but with a twist.

Commanders did not use ground troops because Zarqawi had eluded coalition forces before, having been tipped off that armored vehicles were headed his way. Commanders instead decided on a quick air strike, giving Zarqawi’s lookouts no time to tip off the man responsible for thousands of deaths in Iraq. One thousand pounds of bombs hit the concrete house. Zarqawi, the most hunted man in the world next to his mentor, bin Laden, was dead.

“We changed our process because he has always had people watching for him,” said a defense source who asked not to be named. “Sure, we would have liked to take him alive. But sometimes you can’t.”

The U.S. command had learned from its mistakes. Last year, they got a good tip that Zarqawi was in a safe house in the Anbar province in western Iraq. The command dispatched a special operations task force, Marines and helicopters. But scouts informed Zarqawi. He fled the scene in a truck, which the manhunters pursued without luck.

A re-examination of surveillance video showed that the terror master likely jumped out of the truck and fled along a canal.

On Wednesday, commanders and CIA officers concluded that Zarqawi was in the house based not only on Rahman’s visit, but also on “technical means and individuals,” the defense source said. In other words, Zarqawi’s presence was confirmed by human sources, surveillance and possibly communications.

“We knew exactly who was there. We knew it was Zarqawi,” said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.

Army Gen. George Casey, the top allied commander in Iraq, approved the strikes by two F-16 fighters carrying 500-pound bombs. On a secure line, the general telephoned Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was attending a NATO meeting, to tell him that they had a fix on Zarqawi and planned a strike.

In the past, commanders had tasked a CIA-operated Predator drone to put a smaller Hellfire warhead on a target to kill terrorists. But planners wanted to ensure this strike contained enough firepower to penetrate reinforced concrete, giving Zarqawi no chance to escape.

The F-16s were summoned from routine patrol and given the target’s coordinates. The first 500-pound bomb, guided by laser, blasted apart the structure at 6:15 p.m. local time (10:15 a.m. EDT).

An air commander opted for a second bomb after surveying the damage, with the same F-16 dropping a satellite-directed munition that uses the Global Positioning System (GPS).

It was only then that U.S. ground troops from the 4th Infantry and 101st Airborne divisions moved in, led by Iraqi police, to scour the rubble. They found the terror leader among the ruins and transported his body to a morgue, where a fingerprint analysis confirmed at 3:30 a.m. local time yesterday that they had got their man. Rahman also was killed.

In Washington on Wednesday afternoon, White House National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley was fielding a number of calls from Iraq. The message was good. There had been an air strike, and it looked as if they had got Zarqawi. President Bush was informed in the Oval Office at 4:35 p.m. EDT. “That would be a good thing,” he said.

The CIA and defense intelligence agents used the same method to hunt Zarqawi that they used to capture dictator Saddam Hussein in December 2003. The process: locate or capture associates and obtain a list of names of other people who had contact with Zarqawi or knew people who had associated with him.

Some of the names came from captured al Qaeda members, and others from seized documents, computer disks and cell phones.

Then came what the U.S. intelligence community is calling the “big break.” About a month ago, the CIA identified Rahman. Rather than arrest him, the agency followed him, right to the front door of Zarqawi.

“This gentleman was key to our success in finding Zarqawi,” Gen. Caldwell said. “As a top lieutenant of his, he was identified several weeks ago through military sources from somebody inside Zarqawi’s network. Through painstaking intelligence effort, they were able to start tracking him, monitoring his movements and establishing when he was doing his link-ups with Zarqawi. [Wednesday night], he made a link-up again at 6:15, at which time the decision was made to go ahead and strike that target, eliminating both of those members of al Qaeda at that time.”

The command did not announce the kill immediately. Once it knew it had Zarqawi, the coalition carried out 17 raids within Baghdad based on weeks of intelligence collection. Commanders had held off on the raids, fearing the operation would tip off Zarqawi and prompt him to move again.

Moments after Gen. Caldwell briefed, Mr. Rumsfeld held a press conference at NATO headquarters.

“I think arguably, over the last several years, no single person on this planet has had the blood of more innocent men, women and children on his hands than Zarqawi,” the secretary said.

“This fellow was the mastermind of that network,” he added. “He was involved in the financing of it. He was involved in activity outside of Iraq. And he had a number of people with him who were also killed, which is a good thing. And I suspect that it will slow them down.”

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