BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – A U.S. military spokesman said Friday that al-Qaeda terrorist leader Abu Mauswab al-Zarqawi was still alive when Iraqi police arrived at the site of a U.S. air strike.
U.S. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said that al-Zarqawi was moving when Iraqi police got there and that U.S. forces also saw him alive.
“We did in fact see him alive. There was some kind of movement he had on the stretcher and he died immediately after,” Caldwell said. “He mumbled something but it was indistinguishable and it was very short.”
He had earlier said U.S troops conducted more than three dozen overnight raids as they sought to take advantage of information gleaned from searches following the death of al-Qaeda terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Fearing reprisals, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki imposed a driving ban in Baghdad and in Diyala, fearing insurgents will seek to avenge his death.
In the second night of raids, Caldwell said 39 raids were carried out and that “clearly we picked up things like memory sticks, some hard drives” that would allow American forces to begin dismantling al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq. He said it was also helping them understand where the group’s weapons and financing were coming from.
But Caldwell also told the British Broadcasting Corp. that he did not think the terrorist organization had been decapitated.
“We have no question we dealt it a severe blow, but it can regenerate,” he told the BBC. “There are still going to be some difficult times.”
U.S. troops had carried out 17 simultaneous raids in the hours after al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike Wednesday near Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province. The region is in the heartland of the Sunni Arab-led insurgency and has seen a recent rise in sectarian violence. Baqouba is (60 kilometers) 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
In announcing al-Zarqawi’s death, Caldwell said the 17 raids had “produced a tremendous amount of information,” which he described as a “treasure trove.” He also said they waited to kill al-Zarqawi before carrying out the other raids, in an apparent effort not to spook the Jordanian-born terrorist.
“We had identified other targets that we obviously did not go after to allow us to focus on al-Zarqawi. Now that we got him, we will go after them,” Caldwell said.
As Iraqi and U.S. leaders cautioned that al-Zarqawi’s death was not likely to end the bloodshed in Iraq, Caldwell said another foreign-born militant was already poised to take over the terror network’s operations.
He said Egyptian-born Abu al-Masri would likely take the reins of al-Qaeda in Iraq. He said al-Masri trained in Afghanistan and arrived in Iraq in 2002 to establish an al-Qaeda cell.
The U.S. military did not further identify al-Masri and his real identity could not immediately be determined. But the Central Command has listed an Abu Ayyub al-Masri as among its most wanted al-Zarqawi associates and placed a US$50,000 bounty on his head.
Al-Masri, whose name is an obvious alias meaning “father of the Egyptian,” is believed to be an expert at constructing roadside bombs, the leading cause of U.S. military casualties in Iraq.
The midday ban in Baghdad lasted four hours, while all traffic was banned in Diyala from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. for three days starting Friday.
The Baghdad ban fell during the times that most Iraqis go to mosques for Friday prayers. Bombers have been known to target Shiite mosques during the weekly religious services with suicide attackers and mortars hidden in vehicles.
Iraqi authorities imposed the vehicle ban as a security measure “to protect mosques and prayers from any possible terrorist attacks, especially car bombs, in the wake off yesterday’s event,” a government official said, referring to al-Zarqawi’s death. The official from the prime minister’s office spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to media.
The U.S. military displayed images of the battered face of al-Zarqawi, Iraq’s most feared terrorist, and said he had been identified by fingerprints, tattoos and scars.
Biological samples from his body also were delivered to an FBI crime laboratory in Virginia for DNA testing. The results were expected in three days.
Al-Maliki also hailed a breakthrough on the political front, gaining approval Thursday from the Iraqi parliament for three key security ministers in a move that ended a three-week stalemate among Iraq’s fractured ethnic and sectarian groups.
The new Iraqi Defense Minister Gen. Abdul-Qader Mohammed Jassim al-Mifarji, a Sunni Arab, promised to work with the other security forces to stop the violence in the country. “I will cooperate completely with the other security forces, the interior ministry, the national security, the intelligence service,” he said Thursday at a handover ceremony. “We have to be one team with the multinational forces to achieve victory against terrorism.”
Members of that formerly dominant minority are the backbone of the insurgency, and many people feel it is crucial to have Sunnis deeply involved in the new government to weaken support for the guerrillas.
Sunni Arabs also have complained of random detentions and maltreatment at the hands of the Shiite-dominated interior ministry, which oversees the police. The defense ministry controls the army.
The other two new ministers came from the Shiite majority, Jawad al-Bolani as interior minister and Sherwan al-Waili as minister of state for national security. The two breakthroughs may give the United States and its Iraqi allies another brief chance to build momentum toward stability and away from violence. With al-Zarqawi out of the way and the new government in place, some Sunni Arab leaders may be emboldened to resume a dialogue they started last fall, exchanges sunk by al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Violence was unabated Thursday. Gunmen kidnapped Muthanna al-Badri, director general of state company for oil projects, or SCOP, while he was driving Thursday from the ministry to his home in the predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood of Azamiyah in north Baghdad, ministry spokesman Assem Jihad said Friday.
Five civilians were killed and three were wounded Friday during a firefight in the area of Ghalibiya, west of Baqouba, according to the regional authorities. The circumstances of the firefight, which demolished five houses, were unclear.
Elsewhere, the torso of a man wearing a military uniform was found floating in a river Friday morning near Kut, 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Baghdad, morgue official Hadi al-Ettabi said.
Police also found five unidentified bodies late Thursday of men who had been shot in the head in eastern Baghdad. And gunmen opened fire on Friday’s funeral procession for the brother of the governor of the northern city of Mosul. Zuhair Kashmola was killed by gunmen on Thursday.