BAGHDAD, June 8: US warplanes killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda leader in Iraq blamed for bombings, beheadings and assassinations, in a strike which President George Bush said on Thursday had delivered justice.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who was desperately in need of success to bolster his authority, announced Zarqawi’s death near the city of Baquba, 65kms north of the capital.

In one of the most significant developments in Iraq since the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Jordanian-born Zarqawi was killed on Wednesday in a joint US-Iraqi operation helped by tip-offs from Iraqis and Jordanian intelligence.

Vowing to fight on, Al Qaeda in Iraq confirmed the death of Zarqawi, who beheaded several hostages himself and appeared in a recent video firing a machinegun in the desert.

US forces displayed pictures to reporters of the corpse of the bearded Zarqawi with facial abrasions and his eyes closed. The air strike was carried out by two F-16 planes with two 227-kg bombs hitting Zarqawi’s ‘safe house’.

Zarqawi, in his late 30s and whom Osama bin Laden called the prince of Al Qaeda in Iraq, had symbolised the Islamist resistance against US occupation.

US special forces were involved in the trailing of Sheikh Abdul-Rahman, Zarqawi’s spiritual adviser, that helped uncover Zarqawi’s presence in a small house in a palm grove area. Abdul-Rahman was also killed in the air strike.

Mr Bush said the death of Zarqawi, who had a $25 million bounty on his head, was ‘a severe blow to Al Qaeda’, a victory in the ‘war against terrorism’, and ‘an opportunity for Iraq’s new government to turn the tide in this struggle’.

“(The US air strike) delivered justice to the most wanted terrorist in Iraq,” Mr Bush told a news conference in Washington.

But a sombre-looking Bush signalled he did not expect the killing of Zarqawi to bring about any early end to the violence.

“We have tough days ahead of us in Iraq that will require the continued patience of the American people,” said Mr Bush, battling low poll ratings, partly over Iraq, as his Republican Party faces mid-term congressional elections in November.

Over 30 people were killed as three bombs exploded in Baghdad just hours after Zarqawi’s death was announced.

PLEDGE: Followers of Zarqawi, a Sunni who had declared war on Iraq’s Shias, reinforcing fears he was out to ignite civil war, pledged to carry on their fight.

“We tell our prince, Sheikh (Osama) bin Laden, your soldiers in Al Qaeda in Iraq will continue along the same path that you set out for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,” said a statement on a Web site.

Maj-Gen William Caldwell of the US Army said an Egyptian militant trained in Afghanistan, called Abu al-Masari who established the first Al Qaeda cell in Baghdad, may succeed Zarqawi as head of the group in Iraq.

Gen Caldwell told reporters the operation to track down Zarqawi took many weeks. “It truly was a very long, painstaking, deliberate exploitation of intelligence, information gathering, human sources, electronics, signal intelligence,” he said.

Six people, including a woman and a child, were killed in the house but only Zarqawi and Abdul-Rahman have been identified. Zarqawi was identified by his fingerprints and tattoos. A further DNA test was being carried out on Zarqawi.

Seventeen raids were launched on suspected hideouts for Zarqawi associates in the Baghdad area after he was killed. They produced a ‘treasure trove’ of information, officials said.

The killing of Zarqawi had an impact on oil prices. Crude futures were down more than one dollar to $68.17 a barrel.

Zarqawi, who faced four death sentences in Jordan, one for his role in killing a US diplomat, had inspired a flood of militants from across the Arab world to blow themselves up in suicide missions in Iraq. Taunting Mr Bush during the video-taped killing of a US hostage, Zarqawi once boasted his Al Qaeda fighters ‘love death just like you love life’.—Reuters

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