BAGHDAD - A tip off from within Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's circle enabled US forces to "deliver justice" against the wanted militant with two 500 pound bombs that obliterated his safe house, US and other officials said Thursday.
The isolated house near the troubled city of Baquba, about 60 kilometres (35 miles) north of Baghdad, was left a crater of tangled concrete and steel after the devastating strikes Wednesday night, according to a US military video.
Major General Bill Caldwell, spokesman for Multi-National Forces in Iraq, said Zarqawi hunters had been closing in on Osama bin Laden's annointed "prince" in Iraq for about six weeks.
And US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld justified the decision to launch the deadly strike by two F-16 jets, rather than try to capture Zarqawi.
Top commanders "came to a conclusion that they could not really go in on the ground without running the risk of having him (Zarqawi) escape, so they used air power and attacked the dwelling that he was in, having a meeting," Rumsfeld told a Brussels press conference.
Zarqawi and five others were killed, Caldwell said in Baghdad. He said one had been tentatively identified as the Al-Qaeda frontman's spritual advisor, whom he named simply as Sheikh Abdel Rahman, without giving a family name.
Caldwell said a woman and child were also among the dead from the attack that the United States has hailed as a major blow against Al-Qaeda and terrorism.
The United States has had a special unit, Task Force 145, hunting Zarqawi for almost three years in Iraq. It is reportedly made up of elite Delta Force and SEAL operatives.
President George W. Bush confirmed that US special forces took part in the operation and that inside information led to the attack.
"At 6:15 pm Baghdad time (1415 GMT), special operation forces, acting on tips and intelligence from Iraqis, confirmed Zarqawi's location, and delivered justice to the most wanted terrorist in Iraq," Bush said at the White House.
Caldwell said the trail to Zarqawi had gone through Sheikh Abdel Rahman.
"Zarqawi's whereabouts and his movements and things came about through, obviously, Sheikh (Abdel) Rahman, through various means of other intelligence over the last couple of weeks."
Abdel Rahman "was brought to our attention by somebody within the network of Zarqawi's," said the military spokesman.
A senior Jordanian official said his country supplied crucial information following the arrest last month of an Iraqi Al-Qaeda operative linked to Zarqawi.
Ziad Khalaf al-Karbuli confessed on Jordanian television on May 23 to links to Zarqawi, saying that he murdered a Jordanian driver and abducted two Moroccan embassy employees last year.
Caldwell would not comment on the source of the information but described Jordan as "an extremely important friend and partner".
"We had cleared up evidence about a month and a half ago that allowed us to start necking down to the point where we were able to prosecute the action last night against the safe house," Caldwell said.
"We had absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Zarqawi was in the house," the spokesman said, adding that Abdel Rahman was also known to be inside.
"Last night was the first time that we have had definitive, unquestionable information as to exactly where he was located, knowing that we could strike that target without causing collateral damage to other Iraqi civilians and personnel in the area."
The bombs sent debris over a wide area. After the strike, Iraqi security forces were the first to inspect the devastation. They were soon followed by US forces from the 4th Infantry Division.
Zarqawi's body was badly battered but it was almost immediately identified visually, Caldwell said. Later it was taken away for examination and matched to known scars and tattoos. The spokesman said a fingerprint check was also positive but that DNA checks were expected to be completed in 48 hours.
Rumsfeld paid his own bitter valedictory to the slain Al-Qaeda leader.
"I think arguably over the last several years no single person on this planet has had the blood of more innocent men, women and children on his hands than Zarqawi. He personified the dark, sadistic and mediaeval vision of the future of beheadings and suicide bombings and indiscriminate killings."