A man described as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's "spiritual adviser" inadvertently led US forces to the spot where the militant leader was finally located and killed, the US military says.
Zarqawi's body was identified by fingerprints and bodily features
Major General William Caldwell said the operation to track down the most wanted man in Iraq was carried out over many weeks, before he was killed after two US air force F-16s bombed a house in a village north of Baghdad.
"The strike last night did not occur in a 24-hour period. It truly was a very long, painstaking deliberate exploitation of intelligence, information gathering, human sources, electronic, signal intelligence that was done over a period of time - many, many weeks," Gen Caldwell said on Thursday.
He said a tip from someone in Zarqawi's network put US forces on the trail of Sheikh Abd-al-Rahman, the militant's "spiritual adviser".
He would not say when they received this tip, but said they had clear evidence about a month-and-a-half ago that began the process that led them to identify the safe house where Zarqawi was eventually killed.
US spokesmen would not say where their information came from, and the state department said it had not decided who would receive the $25m (£14m) bounty on Zarqawi's head.
Gen Caldwell said no single tip was responsible. "It wasn't like somebody said 'at that house at this time, you will find Zarqawi'. That did not occur," he said.
There was some speculation the strike may have been linked to the recent arrest of Zarqawi aide Kassim al-Ani.
The moment the bombs hit was captured on film
A White House spokesman implied the vital information may have come from a local dismayed by Zarqawi's presence in his town.
"Zarqawi moves into Baquba...and what happens? Over the weekend, they found nine heads in a box... That's what Zarqawi brought to Baquba," said spokesman Tony Snow.
A senior Jordanian official said his country had played a vital role. It had analysed a video featuring Zarqawi that appeared in April, to work out where the pictures were taken, he said. It also gleaned information following the arrest of an al-Qaeda member last month.
However state department spokesman Sean McCormack said he could confirm neither a Jordanian link, nor that a neighbour may have given the tip.
President George Bush said "special operation forces" were involved in the operation, but no-one would say whether they had identified the target building and directed the air raid.
Once the building was located, however, commanders "came to a conclusion that they could not really go in on the ground without running the risk of having him escape, so they used air power", said US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Gen Caldwell said Wednesday night was the first time US forces had "definite unquestionable information" they could strike the target without causing collateral damage to civilians.
"We had absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Zarqawi was
in the house," he said.
"We knew from having watched the movements of Abd-al-Rahman that he was there too."
Once the target had been identified, two F-16 jets were dispatched towards the small house
in a palm grove 8km (five miles) north of the town of Baquba.
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The lead aircraft dropped a 500lb bomb, and then the aircraft returned for another run, dropping a second, similar bomb.
"Following this strike Iraqi security forces, specifically Iraqi police, responded to that location, they were the first ones to arrive on the scene," Gen Caldwell said.
They were followed "very shortly thereafter" by US ground forces.
In his first press briefing on Thursday, Gen Caldwell said US troops found six dead bodies, including the main target.
But on Friday, he said he had since been told that Zarqawi was still alive for some time after the bombing.
"Zarqawi in fact did survive the air strike," he said, and was put on a stretcher by Iraqi police.
When US forces arrived they started examining him.
"He obviously had some kind of visual
recognition of who they were because he attempted to roll off
the stretcher, as I am told, and get away, realising it was
US military," Caldwell said.
He said everybody around resecured him to the
stretcher, "but he died immediately thereafter".
He had mumbled, but gave up no information before he died, he said.
On Thursday he said the six bodies included a child, but on Friday he said his information had changed. There were three dead men, three dead women, and no children.
Zarqawi's body was taken to a secure location.
"By visual identification it was established that that probably was him, but they... did further examination of his body, found more scars and tattoos consistent with what had been reported which we knew about him.
"They then did fingerprint identification and that came back at about 0330 this morning as positively identified as Zarqawi having been killed."
DNA analysis could be completed within days.
The US said it was certain Zarqawi was present when it attacked
Zarqawi's death allowed coalition forces to go after his network - those people who had been used to establish his movements, patterns and habits, Gen Caldwell said.
Coalition and Iraqi forces moved quickly, conducting 17 simultaneous raids in and around Baghdad within hours of Zarqawi's death.
"And in those 17 raids [on Wednesday] night a tremendous amount of information and intelligence was collected. It is presently being exploited and utilised for further use. I mean it was a treasure trove, no question," the general said.
He said on Friday that a further 39 raids were carried out on Thursday night.