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Key al-Qaida Terrorist Killed in U.S. Bomb Raid

June 8, 2006 at 6:15 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the Baghdad chronology and reaction, we go to Trudy Rubin, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, who joined us from the Iraqi capital. I talked with her earlier this evening by phone.

Trudy, was there any sign tonight in Baghdad that one of the leaders of the insurgency had been killed?

TRUDY RUBIN, Columnist, Philadelphia Inquirer: There were a lot of celebrations. People were honking cars in the streets. In the Shiite slums — huge, two million people — people were firing up in the air in celebration.

Sheep were being slaughtered and meat given to the poor, and everybody was calling everybody else and congratulating them, especially in the Shiite community, which has suffered tremendously at Zarqawi’s hands, because he specifically said that people should kill Shiites and try to stir up sectarian war against them.

Word of the death spread quickly

RAY SUAREZ: When did word start to get out this morning that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi may have been killed?

TRUDY RUBIN: It was early morning. I was actually sitting in a general's office, and I got a call on my cell phone. And then word started circulating, and people started coming into his office.

And then the news came over that Casey had confirmed it. And then, when I called around -- it took a while for people to be sure. Those who had computers knew that ABC News and other networks were starting to mention it, and then the prime minister confirmed it. And then I started getting calls from Iraqis.

RAY SUAREZ: Trudy, you were at the briefing this morning where the military laid out the operation that got Zarqawi. How did they present it?

TRUDY RUBIN: Well, they showed an interesting video. A 500-pound bomb was dropped; a huge cloud of smoke went up. Then, the U.S. F-16s went over again and dropped it again.

It made one wonder how there was anything but mincemeat left of Zarqawi, but then they showed the pictures. And it was clearly he, but they also said they had wiped a lot of blood and debris off the body. 

The intelligence behind the death

RAY SUAREZ: Were they able to describe in any detail the intelligence that led them to that structure?

TRUDY RUBIN: They said that it was a long process. They had started with mid-level Zarqawi followers, and they worked their way up. The most interesting thing is that they got intelligence from within his organization.

But they also managed to track him through a key adviser, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman, a spiritual adviser, whose name they were given by an informant. And they tracked Abdel-Rahman and managed to figure out that he was meeting with Zarqawi, and that was the key to their knowing where Zarqawi was and dropping the bomb.

"There is hope"

RAY SUAREZ: Did they realize he was there or was the primary target the spiritual adviser?

TRUDY RUBIN: No, they knew that he was there; they were categorical about that. And they said that this particular evening was the first time that they were absolutely sure that they had intelligence that he was there and that it was not a case where unacceptable collateral damage would be caused.

RAY SUAREZ: For all you've said about the significance of this killing, were your sources still being cautious, when asked to assess what effect this might have going forward?

TRUDY RUBIN: Oh, absolutely. I think even General Casey and the military spokesman who gave the briefing today were warning against getting carried away and warning that this won't mean the end of all violence.

And we've had episodes before, when Saddam was captured, when other leading terrorists were killed, so one does have to be very cautious.

But I've now spent almost two weeks here, and this is my seventh visit since Baghdad fell, and I've never seen such despair. People really were hopeless. That was the word that kept being used to me, "We are hopeless. There is no hope."

And so I think of it as significant that people will get a psychological boost here, and it provides a little opening for the Americans and the new Iraqi government to show whether they're capable of doing anything to improve the security, especially in Baghdad.

Significant day to kill Zarqawi

RAY SUAREZ: And on a day when the final three cabinet positions were announced, including the two cabinet ministers that run both the police and the armed forces, was it a significant day for getting a target of this size?

TRUDY RUBIN: It is very significant, because the government hasn't been completed for five months, and these last two posts are very important. Defense more or less controls the army, the Iraqi army. It really isn't the Americans. And interior controls the police.

But because those posts were vacant, it really was very difficult for the U.S. to start any new initiative in Baghdad. Now that those posts are filled, Iraq's foreign minister told me today, Hoshyar Zebari, that there probably would be an offensive coming up very shortly in Baghdad to try to clean out some of these neighborhoods where chaos has taken over in the last five months, even worse than before.

So the combination of Zarqawi's death and the appointment of these ministers, again, gives us a little window -- which has to be followed up; I mean, someone has to go through that window -- where the Americans and Iraqi forces, if they can achieve something in the current weeks, they can build on this momentum.

RAY SUAREZ: Trudy Rubin joining us from Baghdad, thanks a lot.

TRUDY RUBIN: You're very welcome.