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Al-Qaeda Leader In Iraq Reported Dead --> An undated file photo of Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi (AFP) PRAGUE, June 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has announced the killing of the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi.

Al-Maliki made the announcement at a press conference in Baghdad broadcast by state-run Al-Iraqiyah television with U.S. Army General George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad.

According to al-Maliki, al-Zarqawi was killed late on June 7 in a joint U.S.-Iraqi military operation north of Baghdad.

"What happened today is the result of constructive cooperation that we always asked for from our citizens and the sons of our people," al-Maliki said. "They cooperated in facilitating and providing information to police forces and multinational forces to operate and strike the final precise blow [on al-Zarqawi]."

Casey said that al-Zarqawi's body has been identified by "fingerprint verification, facial recognition, and known scars." He said the hunt for al-Zarqawi began two weeks ago. He added that one of al-Zarqawi's "key lieutenants, spritual adviser Sheikh Abd al-Rahman" was also killed. "This happened in an air strike that was conducted against an identified isolated safe house."

At a later news briefing in Baghdad, U.S. Army Major Bill Caldwell said that just after the air strike that killed al-Zarqawi, U.S. and Iraqi forces searched several sites in and around the capital where they found a wealth of information, presumably about the insurgency.

"As a result of striking that target and having confirmation early in the evening that we had, in fact, killed Zarqawi, we then conducted 17 simultaneous raids within Baghdad proper and just on the outskirts, utilizing both Iraqi security forces and coalition forces," Caldwell said. "And in those 17 raids last night, a tremendous amount of information and intelligence was collected and is presently being exploited and utilized for further use. I mean, it was a treasure trove [of information], no question."

A Jordanian official today said that intelligence information provided by his country helped in the operation that led to the killing of al-Zarqawi. Government spokesman Nasser Joudeh said Jordan has been exchanging such intelligence with the United States.

U.S. officials have not yet commented on the claim.

Khalilzad hailed the slaying as a great success, but said that it will not end the insurgency in Iraq.

Al-Zarqawi As Focal Point For Insurgency

The news of al-Zarqawi's death comes just as the Jordanian-born insurgent leader appeared at the peak of his powers. Over the past months, al-Zarqawi, aged about 40, had emerged as the galvanizing focal point of the Iraqi insurgency.

The insurgency loosely groups foreign Al-Qaeda sympathizers, Sunni extremists, and loyalists of Saddam Hussein. Insurgent groups are believed to operate independently but all recruit based on their -- and the overall insurgency's -- successes.

Al-Zarqawi personified success more than any other insurgent leader by personally taking a high-profile role in kidnappings, beheadings of captives, and the planning of attacks on Iraqi forces.

More recently, he urged Iraq's Sunnis to make war on the Shi'ite majority. An intercepted letter attributed to him suggested he hoped civil war would make Iraq untenable for U.S.-led forces.

Al-Zarqawi’s group, or groups close to him, are suspected of bombing Shi'ite mosques, including a key shrine in Samarra in February. That bombing sparked weeks of tit-for-tat killings by Sunni and Shi'ite extremist groups.

In a videotape sent to Arab media in April, al-Zarqawi raised his profile further by showing his face publicly for the first time. In the video, he strode through the desert with comrades dressed in black and waving rifles.

An Iraqi watching the televised press conference at which the killing of al-Zarqawi was announced on June 8 (AFP)

At the same time, he announced a unified command among the various insurgent groups. "The creation of the Mujahedin Shura Council in Iraq will, God willing, help bring about the creation of an Islamic state where the word of God is exalted," he said. "This has begun to happen and the council will be an umbrella for every true holy warrior. I would be honored, as the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, to be a member of this blessed council with its blessed leadership."

Many observers say that al-Zarqawi's death will now deal a major blow to the insurgency and, particularly, attempts to better coordinate its guerilla forces. But few expect the death of the insurgency's highest-profile leader to put an end to the insurgency itself. Instead, violence could pick up in the short run as insurgent groups seek to demonstrate through revenge attacks that their power is undiminished.

Still, Iraqi and U.S. officials can hope that al-Zarqawi's death may encourage some groups to view the insurgency as weakened and make their own deals with the Baghdad government. But to what extent that happens will only become apparent in the weeks ahead.

MORE: To read an exclusive RFE/RL interview with Magnus Ranstorp, a senior researcher at the National Defense College of Sweden, on the importance of al-Zarqawi's death and on what comes next for Iraq, click here.

Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi

Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi(undated AFP file photo)

COMMITTED TO TERROR: Jordan-born Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi has been among the most visible and ruthless leaders of Iraq's post-Saddam Hussein insurgency. In a tape released earlier this month, al-Zaqawi called on Iraqi Sunnis to fight against Shi'a and labeled Shi'ite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani an "atheist."
Insurgents loyal to Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization have regained control over much of Al-Anbar Governorate, and are posing a major challenge to U.S. and Iraqi forces. A local security force established by tribesmen under an agreement with the U.S. military has all but ceased operating, after nearly a dozen tribal leaders were assassinated in revenge attacks by insurgents loyal to al-Zarqawi's Mujahedin Shura Council since January. Local tribal leaders now say they are afraid to be seen associating with U.S. forces, lest they be targeted by insurgents....(more)


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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to see RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.