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BAGHDAD — Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the self-proclaimed leader of al-Qaida in Iraq and the most wanted man in the country, was killed Wednesday evening in an airstrike near Baqouba, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Thursday.

The Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi had become the public face of a brutal terror network operating in Iraq and had ordered hundreds of kidnappings, bombings and other attacks against both military and civilian targets.

Al-Zarqawi and several associates — including Sheik Abd-al-Rahman, described as al-Zarqawi’s “spiritual adviser” — were killed in an airstrike around 6 p.m., about five miles west of Baqouba.

Two Air Force F-16s dropped two 500-pound bombs on an isolated house in the middle of a date palm field.

Two bombs were used in the strike because the home al-Zarqawi was in was very sturdy, said Lt. Gen. Gary North, Combined Forces Air Component commander, speaking to reporters Thursday.

Shortly thereafter, Iraqi police and American special operations soldiers stormed the area, finding the bodies of six people in the rubble, including four who have yet to be identified.

Among the unidentified bodies, coalition spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said, were a woman and a child.

Caldwell said al-Zarqawi’s remains were positively identified by his facial features, scars and tattoos. He added that officials were in the process of doing a DNA analysis.

Caldwell showed a short black-and-white video of Wednesday’s coordinated airstrike, along with two large photographs of al-Zarqawi’s bloody, bruised and bloated head.

Simultaneously, he said, military units conducted 17 raids in the Baghdad area, finding what he called “a treasure trove” of information on insurgent activity. But Caldwell said the elimination of al-Qaida in Iraq’s top leader did not necessarily signal an end to Iraq’s problems.

He said al-Zarqawi’s likely successor is Afghan-trained Egyptian insurgent Abu Musab Al-Ansari, whom he credited with founding one of the first al-Qaida cells in Baghdad.

He said military leaders expect an uptick in violence over the next few days.

“Elimination of Zarqawi is a step forward,” he said. “Ridding Iraq of Zarqawi will not instantaneously stop the violence.”

U.S. and Iraqi officials made the joint announcement of al-Zarqawi’s death earlier at a Baghdad press conference.

“Tips and intelligence from Iraqi senior leaders from his network led forces to al-Zarqawi and some of his associates, who were conducting a meeting approximately eight kilometers north of Baqouba when the airstrike was launched,” Gen. George W. Casey Jr., commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq, said with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad.

Casey, echoing caution expressed from throughout the U.S. military in Iraq, warned that Zarqawi’s death will not end the threat posed by al-Qaida in Iraq.

“The terrorist organization still poses a threat, as its members will continue to try to terrorize the Iraqi people and destabilize their government as it moves toward stability and prosperity,” he said.

News reports quoted an unnamed Jordanian official as saying his country provided the U.S. military with some of the information used to track al-Zarqawi.

The announcement of al-Zarqawi’s death was likely to boost morale for the more than 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Several unsolicited e-mails sent to Stars and Stripes from troops in Iraq on Thursday described the news spreading throughout camps across the country.

U.S. soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 68th Infantry Regiment at FOB Warhorse provided the outer cordon around the site following the airstrike to “secure the area for experts who were confirming the results of the mission,” Lt. Col. Thomas Fisher, the battalion commander, said in an e-mail to Stripes.

“We did not watch the actual strike as we had to keep the airspace open for the attack (although we did watch the jet come in and drop the bomb from our new [tactical operations center]). We began surveillance following the airstrike as part of our efforts to secure the area and watched the aftermath,” Fisher wrote.

“Overall it was truly a great victory, not only for the Iraqi and coalition forces, but also the good and decent citizens of Iraq who are working hard to rid their country of this evil and build a new nation. The local reaction across my sector (western Diyala) and Baqouba has been one of celebration, happiness and pride. Today, the Iraqis here saw justice prevail and things continue to improve here in Diyala.”

In a Rose Garden statement, President Bush warned of “tough days ahead,” but said the news gives us “renewed confidence in the final outcome of this struggle.”

Al-Zarqawi’s death would not end the sectarian violence, he said, nor would it stop attacks in Iraq.

Earlier in his statement, Bush praised the troops in Iraq, “who worked tirelessly with their Iraqi counterparts to track down this brutal terrorist and put him out of business. … Coalition and Iraqi forces perservered through years of near misses and false leads, and they never gave up.”

Just weeks ago, the U.S. command in Baghdad undertook a concerted effort to discredit al-Zarqawi and portary him as largely ineffective and of waning significance. On May 10, the command in Iraq released what it called the “Baghdad Strategy” and “Baghdad State of Affairs” of al-Qaida in Iraq, saying the documents showed a weakening group lacking leadership and military capability.

The command also released excerpts of a propaganda videotape of al-Zarqawi in which he had trouble firing a machine gun.

“Here is Zarqawi, the ultimate warrior, trying to shoot his machine gun. He’s shooting single shots. He looks down, can’t figure it out. Calls his friend to come unblock the stoppage.” said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch at a May 5 news conference in Baghdad.

“He’s wearing his black uniform and his New Balance tennis shoes, as he moves this white pickup truck, and his close associates around him, his trusted advisers, do things like grab the hot barrel of a machine gun and burn themselves.”

In April, Lynch called al-Zarqawi and al-Qaida in Iraq “ruthlessly devastating.”

“The terrorists and foreign fighters that he recruits, trains and equips carry out more than 90 percent of the insidious suicide attacks against the men, women and children of Iraq,” Lynch said then.

Stripes reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this report from the Pentagon.

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