Zarqawi Killing the Result of Months of Intelligence Work
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Pentagon officials say Zarqawi's death followed months of methodical intelligence work. The elusive Zarqawi had escaped U.S. forces on a number of occasions, so when word came that the Americans had targeted and killed him, U.S. officials were cautious.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld heard the news during a visit to Brussels, but Pentagon officials say he waited overnight to share the information with some members of his senior staff.
NPR Pentagon Correspondent John Hendren was traveling with Rumsfeld, and details how the operation against Zarqawi unfolded.
JOHN HENDREN reporting:
Several weeks ago, General George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, phoned Secretary Rumsfeld to let him know that the U.S. military had the most wanted man in Iraq in its sights. It wasn't the first time. As a visibly buoyant Rumsfeld told reporters traveling on his plane, Zarqawi has eluded the Pentagon before.
Secretary of Defense DONALD RUMSFELD: They have been tracking that individual for a good long time - come very close on a number of occasions.
HENDREN: On one occasion, a senior U.S. military official based in the Middle East said American special operations soldiers came close enough to the Jordanian insurgent leader that they were attacked by bodyguards who detonated their explosive vests. Zarqawi escaped.
According to an administration official familiar with the latest operation, military intelligence and CIA officials were fielding tips from Iraqis and working with a small group of Iraqi soldiers who knew the area. They had tracked Zarqawi to the insurgent hotbed of Baqubah, about an hour's drive north of Baghdad. Rumsfeld recalled a series of decapitations in that area.
Sec. RUMSFELD: Well, the Baqubah area is where they found those, whatever it was - ten, twelve, fifteen, seventeen heads. That's probably what he was doing there. And I'm sure they - the people who were tracking him and putting pieces together had a sense of what he was doing.
HENDREN: In the search for Zarqawi, intelligence agents followed what defense officials describe as a systematic process. That almost certainly means following Zarqawi using video surveillance from unmanned Predators or other surveillance planes, and monitoring phone lines in the area.
A senior U.S. military official in Iraq said other insurgents have given themselves away by communicating on cell phones. But Zarqawi was known to be more careful. Weeks went by, and Zarqawi continued about his business. Then, Wednesday night around 9:00 p.m., Rumsfeld returned to the Hilton Hotel in Brussels after dinner and fielded a historic call. It was General Casey, with the news: Zarqawi was dead.
Sec. RUMSFELD: He called me after he knew the air strike had hit the dwelling, and someone had gotten in on the ground and identified him 78 percent worth; not fingerprints, not DNA, but clothes, face, some body marks that we knew he had.
HENDREN: Those markings were the scars from a surgery Zarqawi had to remove tattoos. U.S. forces had also found a rifle that looked like the one Zarqawi brandished in one of his jihadist videos. Then, to be sure, they fingerprinted him. The ID came back positive.
In the end, Defense officials say, the tip came from someone close to Zarqawi. Senior defense officials say someone now in Iraq will collect the $25 million bounty on Zarqawi's head.
Rumsfeld was coy about the details.
Sec. RUMSFELD: You can be sure that the people who found him, just as the people who find almost everybody, don't find them by accident. They spend a lot of time talking to a lot of people and figuring out how they can piece these puzzles together.
HENDREN: Then it was a matter of how to break the news. The Bush administration agreed that Iraqis and General Casey should break the news together. They consciously avoided a repeat of the capture of Saddam Hussein, when U.S. administrator Paul Bremer, a civilian, grabbed the headline from the military, announcing We Got Him.
In a news conference in Baghdad, Casey and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki cautioned that Zarqawi's capture would not end the violence or the insurgency. But Rumsfeld, speaking at NATO headquarters, accentuated the positive. He declared Zarqawi's death a major blow to al-Qaida.
Sec. RUMSFELD: Let there be no doubt, the fact that he is dead is a significant victory in the battle against terrorism in that country, and I would say worldwide.
HENDREN: Rumsfeld had one lament, the announcement of Zarqawi's death overshadowed good news that the Bush administration had been anticipating for days. Iraq's new prime minister had completed his Cabinet. John Hendren, NPR News, Washington.
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