Interesting details on the Zarqawi affair by Sean Naylor at Army Times:
In the end, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi could not escape Task Force 145's "unblinking eye."
TF 145 is the latest name for the shifting collection of U.S. and British special operations units that has hunted the most wanted terrorist in Iraq for three years, and "the unblinking eye" is what its members call the fusion of intelligence and operations that allowed them to relentlessly peel away the layers of Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq organization until the terror mastermind was left defenseless and almost alone.
When that moment came, at 6:15 p.m. on June 7, a hidden Delta Force reconnaissance and surveillance team from TF 145 watched as two 500-pound bombs dropped by an Air Force F-16 pulverized the safe house near Baqubah, in which Zarqawi; his spiritual advisor, Sheikh Abd Al Rahman; and four other people had taken refuge.
The house, located in a tiny farming hamlet called Hibhib, was leveled by the blast. Rahman, another man and three women are believed to have died in the strike, but Zarqawi was still breathing when Iraqi police arrived at the scene, Army Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell said during a June 9 briefing from Baghdad. However, the terrorist leader died within moments.
Caldwell said earlier reports that a child also had been killed in the bombing were incorrect. Zarqawi's death marks a high point in the history of Joint Special Operations Command, which provides most of the units that comprise TF 145, and is a serious - perhaps fatal - blow to Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq terrorist group.
But observers say it is too soon to judge the impact on the wider war in Iraq, which includes a Sunni insurgency separate from Zarqawi's group and several Shiite militias vying for power.
"Things are not going to go away now," said Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert at the Naval Postgraduate School. "But it's now not as likely that we'll see an attack on Ayatollah Sistani or Najaf," he said, referring to Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric and its holiest Shiite shrine.
The strike that killed Zarqawi was the culmination of "a very long, painstaking, deliberate exploitation of intelligence, information-gathering, human sources, electronic, signal intelligence ... over a period of time," Caldwell said.
Rahman, Zarqawi's spiritual adviser, was the key. "He was identified several weeks ago ... through military sources from somebody inside Zarqawi's network," Caldwell said. "They were able to start tracking him, monitoring his movements and establishing when he was doing his link-ups with Zarqawi."
The capture of Sheikh Ahmed al-Dabash in Baghdad's Mansour district May 29, described by U.S. Central Command as "a major financier and facilitator of terrorism in Iraq," may have been another critical breakthrough, multiple sources said.
"You follow the money - and he was the money man," said an officer familiar with special operations in Iraq.
TF 145 tracked Rahman to a safe house about five miles west of Baqubah in the tiny hamlet of Hibhib, an isolated cluster of about 300 buildings, most of them made of sub-baked mud, and surrounded by miles of farms, orchards and fields.
Hibhib, which has seen a fair amount of insurgent activity, is almost 100 percent Sunni and is home to at least three prominent families who would have gladly given sanctuary to a man like Zarqawi, said Army Maj. Kreg Schnell, former intelligence officer for 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, which spent a year in Baqubah starting in February 2004.
Zarqawi "obviously had friends in the area who gave him meals and a place to sleep," Schnell said. Indeed, U.S. intelligence had confirmed that Zarqawi would meet Rahman in Hibhib. A reconnaissance-surveillance team from Delta Force's B Squadron infiltrated the area to get "eyes on" the house, said a source in the special operations community. Sources said a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle was also overhead.
After slipping through coalition fingers on several occasions in the past three years, Zarqawi was now in the sights of U.S. forces.
It was, Caldwell said, "the first time that we ... had definitive, unquestionable information as to exactly where he was located," in a place where he could be hit "without causing collateral damage to other Iraqi civilians and personnel in the area."
Senior U.S. military leaders in Iraq discussed whether to launch a ground assault, but decided "they could not really go in on the ground without running the risk of having him escape," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters June 8 in Brussels, Belgium.
That left an airstrike as the only option. Two F-16C Fighting Falcon jets were in the air on a routine on-call mission due to last four or five hours over central Iraq when the decision was made to launch the mission, Air Force Lt. Gen. Gary North, Central Command's air component commander, told reporters in the Pentagon on June 8.
The jets carried a mixed load of laser-guided and satellite-guided bombs and LITENING targeting pods equipped with laser designators to mark targets, as well as video cameras.
Caldwell said June 9 that at the time the order was given to launch a strike on the house, one of the two F-16s was receiving fuel from an airborne tanker, so only one aircraft made the bombing run.
The pilot knew there was a high-value target in the building, North said, but he declined to say whether the pilot was told that target was Zarqawi.
North also refused to name the pilot, the unit or the base from which the mission was flown. For the past year, most F-16Cs flying over Iraq have been staged out of Balad, a sprawling Army and Air Force complex about 50 miles north of Baghdad. The Air Force typically has the equivalent of two F-16 squadrons at Balad.
Flying at "medium" altitude - at least 20,000 feet - the pilot circled the safe house, noting how it was built, setting targeting coordinates and deciding which bombs to use. The pilot set his fuses so the bombs would explode inside the house, rather than on contact with the roof, in order to collapse the structure.
At 6:15 p.m., the F-16 dropped a 500-pound laser-guided GBU-12 bomb on the house, causing a massive explosion.
Using the cameras in the LITENING pod, the pilot peered through the smoke to observe the damage and decided a second bomb was needed. About 30 seconds later, the pilot released a 500-pound GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition that was guided by Global Positioning System satellite signals. That also hit the home, leaving the building a smoking pile of rubble.
Iraqi security forces were the first to arrive on the ground - and found Zarqawi still alive, Caldwell said. They had placed the terrorist leader on a stretcher just as U.S. troops from Multi-National Division-North rolled in.
Zarqawi tried to get off the stretcher. Troops again secured him and attempted to start medical treatment, but he died within minutes, Caldwell said.
Coalition forces took Zarqawi's body to an undisclosed secure location, where his identity was confirmed by scars and tattoos he was known to have, and by his fingerprints, Caldwell said.
TF 145 was responsible not only for gathering the intelligence that led to Zarqawi, but also for acting upon it swiftly, creating a cycle in which each set of raids yielded more intelligence, which in turn drove more raids.
Made up of a rotating set of units from Joint Special Operations Command, the task force, based at Balad, includes squadrons from the military's two "direct action" special-mission units - the Army's 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, better known as Delta Force, and the Navy's SEAL Team 6, also known as Naval Special Warfare Development Group, as well as other Army and Air Force special operations elements and a variety of intelligence organizations.
The June 7 attack culminated about six weeks of focused effort.
"We had clear-enough evidence about a month-and-a-half ago that allowed us to start [getting] down to the point where we were able to prosecute the action ... against that safe house," Caldwell said, showing a slide that listed eight men in Zarqawi's organization captured or killed between April 6 and May 31.
But judging from Central Command's own press releases, Caldwell's slide only scratches the surface of TF 145 operations in recent weeks.
On April 16, a force of SEALs and Rangers attacked an al-Qaida in Iraq safe house in Yusufiyah, 20 miles southwest of Baghdad, killing five terrorists and capturing another five. On June 2, "wanted al-Qaida terrorist" Hasayn Ali Muzabir was killed near Balad.
Between those two missions, "coalition forces," the phrase often used by Central Command to disguise the participation of TF 145, captured or killed more than 100 members of al-Qaida in Iraq. Indeed, in a prophetic remark, Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told reporters in Baghdad on May 4 that the coalition was "zooming in" on Zarqawi.
In Iraq, U.S. special operations forces have captured former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, tracked his sons Uday and Qusay to a hide-out where they were killed, and killed Zarqawi - who, because of the perception that his terrorist organization was such a massive obstacle to peace in Iraq, had become arguably the highest-priority individual target for the U.S. in the world.
The question is whether al-Qaida in Iraq can withstand the loss of its iconic leader, who earned grudging respect from U.S. special operators for his willingness to lead from the front.
One candidate may be Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian whom Caldwell said met Zarqawi in Afghanistan in 2001 or 2002. U.S. operators have intelligence indicating al-Masri has had close contacts with Ayman Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief deputy.
Caldwell said al-Masri "helped establish maybe the first al-Qaida cell that existed in the Baghdad area." Analysts generally agree that although Zarqawi was the focus of heavy U.S. combat and propaganda efforts, he and his group were a relatively small facet of the Iraq insurgency and mounted a relatively small number of attacks.
Those attacks had a disproportionate effect, both in their violence and their political and sectarian aftermath, though Zarqawi's death may reduce the likelihood of his ultimate goal: igniting a massive civil war between Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority and the Shiite Muslims who control political life.
Within hours of Zarqawi's June 7 death, 17 simultaneous raids were carried out in and around Baghdad, yielding "a tremendous amount" of information and intelligence that is "presently being exploited ... for further use," Caldwell said.
Another 39 operations were conducted the night of June 8, Caldwell said. "This is a big oak tree that got shaken, so there's stuff falling all over the place," Schnell said.
The unblinking eye cannot afford to rest yet.
Laying Zarqawi to rest may not be the end of al-Qaeda in Iraq but exploiting the trove of intelligence material that was recovered from the house may be.