BAGHDAD, Thursday - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced on Thursday that al Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had been killed in a joint US and Iraqi military raid north of Baghdad.
Jordanian-born Zarqawi is blamed by the US for the beheading of foreign captives and suicide bombings that have maimed and killed hundreds in Iraq. He had become a figurehead for Islamist militants opposing Washington and Malikiâ€™s government.
â€œToday Zarqawi has been terminated,â€ Maliki told a televised news conference attended by the top US commander in Iraq, General George Casey, and other senior officials.
Casey said Zarqawiâ€™s body had been identified and warned that Zarqawiâ€™s followers still posed a threat to Iraq.
Iraqiya television said seven Zarqawi aides were also killed in the raid in the violent city of Baquba 65 km (40 miles) north of the capital.
The most feared leader of the Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq, with a $25m US bounty on his head, Zarqawi has inspired an apparently endless supply of militants from across the Arab world to blow themselves up in suicide missions in Iraq.
Iraqi and US officials say he has formed a loose alliance with Saddam Husseinâ€™s former agents, benefiting from their money, weapons and intelligence assets to press his campaign.
Some posters of the most wanted man in Iraq show him in glasses, looking like an accountant, others as a tough-looking man in a black skullcap. Believed to be in his late 30s, Zarqawi remains a mysterious figure for Iraqis, who only know the carnage of his bombers.
His killing could be seen as one of the most significant developments for the US forces and the Iraqi government it backs since the capture of Saddam Hussein.
Maliki had earlier won the approval of his Shiâ€™ite Alliance for nominees for the interior and defence posts and will present them to parliament on Thursday, Shiâ€™ite sources said. â€œLast night the Alliance gave Maliki authorisation to present the candidates for interior and defence minister to parliament today,â€ Alliance member Bahaa al-Araji told Reuters.
Zarqawiâ€™s real name is Ahmed Fadhil al-Khalayleh. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden appointed him as his deputy in Iraq in October 2004, when Zarqawi changed his groupâ€™s name from Tawhid wal Jihad to Al-Qaeda Organisation for Holy War in Iraq.
Zarqawiâ€™s group has claimed responsibility for many major suicide bombings and attacks in Iraq, as well as beheadings of foreign hostages. He has a $25m US bounty on his head. After returning from Afghanistan, Zarqawi began a violent campaign in the early 1990s to replace Jordanâ€™s monarchy with an Islamist state. He was jailed for 15 years in 1996 but was freed three years later under an amnesty when King Abdullah assumed the throne.
A Jordanian court sentenced him to death in absentia in 2002 for plotting attacks against US and Israeli targets in Jordan. He was again sentenced to death in April 2004 for planning the assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in the capital Amman in 2002.
In December 2005, Jordanâ€™s state security court handed Zarqawi his third death sentence in absentia for planning a failed suicide attack at the border post with Iraq.
Zarqawi claimed triple suicide bomb attacks that killed 60 people at luxury hotels in Amman in November 2005. Some residents of Zarqa, Zarqawiâ€™s birthplace, said he deserved death.