Jordanian-born terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is seen in these undated photos (File photo)
Terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is dead. Iraqi and U.S. officials say al-Qaida's leader in Iraq was killed in an airstrike on a safehouse near Baquba.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki made the announcement.
Iraqi reporters erupted into cheers as he said, "Today, al-Zarqawi has been eliminated."
Mr. Maliki said intelligence information led U.S. and Iraqi forces to a safe house near Baquba, 65 kilometers north of Baghdad, where Zarqawi was meeting with colleagues on Wednesday evening. He said a U.S. airstrike on the building was followed by a joint raid. Television footage taken at the scene Thursday showed the building flattened to rubble.
"This is a message to all those who embrace violence, killing and destruction, to stop before it is too late," said Mr. Maliki.
Top U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. George Casey, left, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speak to the media, Thursday
The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, General George Casey, said Zarqawi and seven of his associates were killed in the airstrike on the isolated building. He said Zarqawi's body has been positively identified, using fingerprints and what he called "facial recognition."
General Casey called Zarqawi's death a "significant blow to al-Qaida," but cautioned that it would not end the violence.
"Although the designated leader of al-Qaida in Iraq is now dead, the terrorist organization still poses a threat, as its member will try to terrorize the Iraqi people and destabilize their government, as it moves toward stability and prosperity," he said.
Al-Qaida in Iraq issued a statement on the Internet confirming Zarqawi's death, and vowing to fight on.
The Jordanian-born militant had become Iraq's most wanted fugitive, with a $25 million bounty on his head. U.S. and Iraqi officials have blamed him for a campaign of suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of people. He is believed to have personally beheaded two American hostages.
He also claimed credit for the triple hotel bombings in Amman, Jordan, last year, and for a series of other attacks in his home country.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is not his real name. He adopted it as a nom de guerre in honor of the Jordanian town where he grew up. He has been a shadowy figure, rarely seen in photographs until recently. Some in the Arab world doubted that he really existed.
His brutal tactics and targeting of Iraqi civilians were believed to have alienated some other members of his group. There were reports recently that he was being sidelined, and Iraqis were taking over the political leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Zarqawi then began making more public statements, and releasing videotapes that reinforced his claims to leadership. His last videotape appeared about two weeks ago, and some reports indicate that details from that tape helped identify his whereabouts.
Despite all the excitement over the death of Zarqawi, the questions that Iraqi reporters posed to Prime Minister Maliki quickly turned to the key vacancies in the Iraqi Cabinet.
Not long after the announcement, Mr. Maliki proposed to parliament his nominees for the ministers of interior and defense. Lawmakers quickly approved his choices.
The new interior minister is Jawad al-Bolani, a Shi'ite. The new defense minister is a Sunni Arab general, Abdel Qader Jassim. Another Shi'ite, Sherwan al-Waili, will be head of national security.
The security posts had been vacant during a three-week dispute among Mr. Maliki's coalition partners.
Briefing: al-Zarqawi's toll of atrocities
By Adam Fresco
Al-Qaeda frontman Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is credited with pioneering the most gruesome tactics used by the Iraqi insurgency, such as beheadings of foreign hostages and suicide bombings. He and his followers are blamed for terrorist attacks including:
October 28, 2002
Laurence Foley, a diplomat and administrator of US aid programmes in Jordan, is gunned down outside his home in Amman. Wanted over the killing, al-Zarqawi flees his home country
August 19, 2003
A truck bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad kills 23, including top UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. A dramatic strike at the heart of the coalition forces in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, which causes the UN to withdraw from Iraq
August 29, 2003
Al-Zarqawi starts the process of fomenting sectarian strife and civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq, with a car bomb in the Shia holy city of Najaf. The bomb kills more than 85 people, including Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr al-Hakim, the leader of the hard-line Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq
March 2, 2004
Coordinated blasts from suicide bombers, mortars and planted explosives strike Shia Muslim shrines in Karbala and Baghdad, killing at least 181. US and Iraqi officials link the attacks to al-Zarqawi
May 11, 2004
A new low in the campaign of terror as a grisly video emerges showing the beheading of Nicholas Berg, a kidnapped American telecoms engineer. The voice of the man wielding the knife is later identified as al-Zarqawi's
May 18, 2004
Another blow to the stability of the political process in Iraq, as a car bomb assassinates Abdel-Zahraa Othman, the president of the Iraqi Governing Council, one of many Iraqi leaders murdered for 'collaborating' with Coalition forces and the interim government
September 14, 2004
Al-Zarqawi turns his attention to decimating the fledgling forces of law and order in Iraq. A car bomb rips through a busy market near a Baghdad police headquarters where unemployed Iraqi men are queuing to apply for jobs, killing 47. It is the first of many such attacks
September 16, 2004
Kenneth Bigley, an engineer from Liverpool, and his US colleagues Jack Hensley and Eugene "Jack" Armstrong are kidnapped in Baghdad. By October 10, 2004, all three men have been confirmed beheaded
The body of hostage Shosei Koda, 24, of Japan, is found decapitated in Baghdad, his body wrapped in an American flag
December 19, 2004
WIth characteristic ruthlessness, car bombs tear through a funeral procession in Najaf and the main bus station in nearby Karbala, killing at least 60 people in the Shia Muslim holy cities
February 28, 2005
A suicide car bomber strikes a crowd of police and Iraqi National Guard recruits in the southern city of Hillah, killing 125
November 9, 2005
Triple suicide bombing against hotels in Amman, Jordan, that killed 60 people. This may have been a terror attack too far for al-Zarqawi, as it causes a backlash of revulsion in the Arab world. There are reports in 2006 that his al-Qaeda masters wish to rein him in.
June 10, 2006 Al-Zarqawi was alive after bombing By PATRICK QUINN
BAGHDAD (AP) - U.S. officials have altered their account of the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, saying he was alive and partly conscious after bombs destroyed his hideout, and an Iraqi witness has raised the possibility that the wounded "al-Qaida in Iraq" leader was beaten by American troops before he died.
The witness, who lived near the scene of the bombing, claimed in an interview with AP Television News to have seen U.S. soldiers beating an injured man resembling al-Zarqawi until blood flowed from the man's nose.
When asked about the allegations, U.S. military spokesman Maj.-Gen. William Caldwell said he would check. In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Jeffrey Gordon said Saturday he was unaware of the claim.
The Iraqi, identified only as Mohammed, claimed that residents put the man in an ambulance before U.S. forces arrived. The American military team then pulled the man from the ambulance and beat him, he said. He gave a similar account to the Washington Post.
No other witnesses have come forward to corroborate the account. U.S. officials have only said al-Zarqawi mumbled and tried to roll off a stretcher before dying.
On Friday, the military said al-Zarqawi survived the dropping of two 225-kilogram bombs on his hideout. The bombs tore a huge crater in the date palm forest where the house was nestled just outside Baqouba, northwest of Baghdad.
Iraqi police reached the scene first, and found the 39-year-old al-Zarqawi alive.
"He mumbled something, but it was indistinguishable and it was very short," Caldwell, a spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Iraq, said Friday.
Iraqi police pulled al-Zarqawi from the flattened home and placed him on a makeshift stretcher. U.S. troops arrived, saw that al-Zarqawi was conscious and tried to provide medical treatment, the U.S. spokesman claimed.
"He obviously had some kind of visual recognition of who they were because he attempted to roll off the stretcher, as I am told, and get away, realizing it was the U.S. military," Caldwell told Pentagon reporters via videoconference from Baghdad.
Al-Zarqawi "attempted to, sort of, turn away off the stretcher," he said. "Everybody resecured him back onto the stretcher, but he died almost immediately thereafter from the wounds he'd received from this air strike."
Caldwell has not mentioned any other physical interaction between U.S. troops and al-Zarqawi.
But the witness, Mohammed, told AP Television News that a bearded man was still alive and was lying next to an irrigation canal. He claimed that U.S. troops wrapped a traditional Arab robe, known as a dishdasha, over the bearded man's head and beat him. His account could not be independently verified.
AP footage of the date palm grove showed debris - concrete blocks, shoes and sandals - scattered over a wide area around a large crater. Date palms were ripped from their roots around the blast site.
So much blood covered al-Zarqawi's body that U.S. forces cleaned him up before taking photographs.
The air strike killed two other men and three women who were in the house, but only al-Zarqawi and his spiritual adviser have been positively identified, he said.
From a helicopter hovering above, a wide swath of destruction could be seen. The debris around the site included a women's slip and other pieces of clothing. Charred dresses, torn blankets, thin sponge mattresses and pillows were in the crater itself.
The debris of concrete blocks and twisted metal reinforcement bars included a pillow with a floral pattern, sandals and a foam mattress with the covering torn off. A cooling unit and part of a washing machine also were in the area.
Lt.-Col. Thomas Fisher of the 1st Battalion, 68th Armoured Cavalry, said his men showed up at the site about five minutes after the blast and cordoned it off. He said they had a patrol in the area already.
"We didn't know it was Zarqawi, we just knew it was a time-sensitive target," he said at the scene early Saturday. "We suspected who it was."
Caldwell also said experts told him it is not unheard of for people to survive a blast of that magnitude. He said he did not know if al-Zarqawi was inside or outside the house when the bombs struck.
"Well, what we had found, as with anything, first reports are not always fully accurate as we continue the debriefings," Caldwell said Saturday "But we were not aware yesterday that, in fact, Zarqawi was alive when U.S. forces arrived on the site."
His recounting of the aftermath of the air strike could not be independently verified. The Iraqi government confirmed only that Iraqi forces were first on the scene, followed by the Americans.
For three years, al-Zarqawi orchestrated horrific acts of violence guided by his extremist vision of jihad, or holy war - first against the U.S. soldiers considered occupiers of Arab lands, then against the Shiites he considered collaborators and infidels.