A long hunt. A killer's quick death. But it may not change much in Iraq
When two U.S. bombs plunged toward an isolated farmhouse in a field of date palms last week, it was the culmination of one of the longest, most intense manhunts ever conducted by the U.S. military. After several tantalizingly close calls, including a botched ambush attempt in February, Iraq's most wanted terrorist, Abu Musab Zarqawi, died in the smoldering ruins of the remote farmhouse near the Sunni hotbed of Baqubah.
The U.S. team that finally located the elusive Zarqawi is so highly classified that its name keeps changing for security reasons. Known until recently as Task Force 145, it is currently called Task Force 77. Working under U.S. Special Forces Command, hundreds of operatives and analysts from the nation's most elite military and intelligence units--Delta and SEAL teams, Army Rangers, CIA officers, eavesdroppers from the National Security Agency, and a significant presence from British intelligence--worked around the clock to find Zarqawi. The group's operations center on a large military base outside Baghdad is dominated by giant projection screens and rows of monitors, filled with live feeds from satellites, unmanned surveillance drones, and U.S. helicopters flying over Iraq.
The pace of the task force's work was punishing. For more than a year, it has been running multiple operations a day, sometimes as many as 14 raids in 24 hours. Suspected insurgents were picked up almost daily. Other militant cells identified by the unit were allowed to keep operating, but under tight surveillance, in the hope that they would lead U.S. operatives to Zarqawi. Last fall, the unit got so close to nabbing the Jordanian-born Sunni militant that operatives expected to arrest him any day.
Tipoff. The breakthrough came several weeks ago, when a key source identified Zarqawi's spiritual adviser, Abu Abdul al-Rahman. Two weeks ago, the unit kicked into even higher gear, staging three raids in quick succession. Seven Zarqawi associates were nabbed in one day. Then came word that Rahman was headed for a meeting with Zarqawi. Tracking him through sophisticated surveillance technology, Task Force 77 followed Rahman to the doomed safe house.
Finding Zarqawi near Baqubah was no surprise--U.S. intelligence was aware that the terrorist was making monthly visits to the surrounding Diyala province, often donning elaborate disguises, including police uniforms. "He would come in, leave, and then things would flare up," one special operations officer in the area told U.S. News. He added that U.S. forces were also concerned about a spate of beheadings in the area, which, although Sunnis were the victims, was believed to be the handiwork of Zarqawi.
With Task Force 77 monitoring the operation live on the screens in its command center, F-16 fighters launched their deadly payload last Wednesday at 6:15 p.m. Zarqawi briefly survived the attack, only to die on a stretcher.
The level of effort that went into tracking down Zarqawi, however, belies the extent of the benefit that may result from his death. The head of al Qaeda in Iraq, with his grisly resume of beheadings, suicide bombings, and indiscriminate killing of civilians, was responsible for some of the most horrific attacks in Iraq since the U.S. invasion. "He embodies the worst of these three years--the sectarianism, the brutality, the complete ruthlessness," says a senior U.S. official. But his followers were only a small part of the predominantly indigenous insurgency that has been impeding the U.S. effort to rebuild Iraq. "No one thinks that this is the decisive point here," says a U.S. intelligence official. "There has long been an understanding that the insurgency in Iraq is an Iraqi phenomenon." In fact, the day after Zarqawi was killed was typically bloody--at least 40 people were killed in attacks around Iraq.