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ARLINGTON, Va. — Iraq’s No. 1 terrorist initially survived an airstrike aimed at taking him out, said Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, spokesman for Multinational Force-Iraq.

On Wednesday, an F-16 dropped two 500-pound bombs on a home near Baqouba, killing six people including al-Qaida in Iraq mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

But contrary to earlier reports, al-Zarqawi was still alive when coalition forces arrived at the destroyed home, Caldwell told reporters on Friday.

“The first people on the scene were the Iraqi police. They had found him and put him in to some kind of gurney-stretcher kind of thing, and then American coalition forces arrived immediately thereafter on site,” Caldwell said.

In a last-ditch act of defiance, al-Zarqawi tried to “turn away off the stretcher” as U.S. troops were identifying him, Caldwell said.

“Everyone re-secured him on the stretcher but he died almost immediately thereafter from the wounds he received from the airstrike,” Caldwell said.

Apparently, al-Zarqawi attempted to say something when coalition forces showed up, but his last words came out as an indistinguishable mumble, Caldwell said.

Asked how al-Zarqawi could survive two 500-pound bombs, Caldwell said he posed the same question to Air Force officers involved with the operation.

“They assured that there are cases where people in fact can survive even an attack like that on a building structure. Obviously, the other five in the building did not, but he did for some reason and we do not know — and I have looked at the reports — as to whether or not he might have been right outside or whatever, we just don’t have that granularity,” Caldwell said.

Al-Zarqawi’s face was bloated but in otherwise good condition in photos released by the coalition on Thursday.

Caldwell said he knew of no plastic surgery performed on al-Zarqawi’s body to make it more presentable but said the coalition did clean up al-Zarqawi’s face for the pictures that were released.

“The photographs there are the straight photographs. We did no digital enhancement from this end,” he said.

Also Friday, Caldwell said the coalition now believes that none of the other five people killed in Thursday’s airstrike were children.

And Caldwell clarified that only one F-16 was involved in the strike because the other fighter in the air was re-fueling in midair at the time.

Despite several raids that followed al-Zarqawi’s death, his apparent replacement, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, is still on the loose, Caldwell said.

“We know that al-Masri came to Iraq before Zarqawi did, probably located somewhere around the Baghdad area sometime around 2003, established probably the first al-Qaida in Iraq cell here in the Baghdad area and that they’ve continued a very close relationship since that time,” he said.

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