BAGHDAD: US warplanes killed Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda leader in Iraq behind a bloody campaign of bombings and beheadings, and President George W Bush said it could help turn the tide against a long-running insurgency.
"(The air strike) delivered justice to the most wanted terrorist in Iraq," Bush said in Washington yesterday.
In one of the most significant developments in Iraq since the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Jordanian-born Zarqawi was killed early yesterday 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.
The US military 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 227kg 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 radical Islamist insurgency 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.
Bush said the death of Zarqawi was a victory in the war against terrorism.
"(Zarqawi's death provides) an opportunity for Iraq's new government to turn the tide in this struggle," Bush told a news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House.
But a sombre-looking Bush signalled he did not expect the killing of Zarqawi near the city of Baquba, 65km north of Baghdad, 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 Bush.
Followers of Zarqawi, a Sunni Muslim who had declared war on Iraq's majority Shi'ites reinforcing fears he was out to ignite civil war, pledged to carry on their fight.
US Major General William Caldwell 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.
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.
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 Bush during the video taped killing of a sobbing, blindfolded US hostage, Zarqawi once boasted his Al Qaeda fighters "love death just like you love life".
"Killing for the sake of God is their best wish," he said, drawing a knife to hack off the head of his kneeling victim.
Zarqawi's reputation for personal savagery stood out even in a country where brutal killings were routine, and sparked reports Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Al Zawahri were worried his homicidal zeal would undermine support for their network.
"I think arguably over the last several years no single person on this planet has had the blood of more innocent men, women and children on his hands than has Zarqawi," US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said. "He personified (a) dark, sadistic mediaeval vision."