BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Tips from within Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's own terror network helped the United States locate and bomb a secret meeting among the al-Qaida leader and top associates at a safe house north of Baghdad, military officials said Thursday.
Iraqis celebrated with gunfire as the battered face of the country's most feared terrorist was broadcast around the world. It was a long-sought victory for U.S. forces, but officials cautioned of violence ahead -- and a string of blasts proved that prediction almost immediately.
Within minutes of the announcement of al-Zarqawi's death, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki named three key security ministers -- military and political breakthroughs in rapid succession that marked the biggest potential turnaround in Iraq in months.
The two events may give the United States and its Iraqi allies another brief chance to build momentum toward stability and away from violence. With al-Zarqawi out of the way and the new government in place, some Sunni Arab leaders may be emboldened to resume a dialogue they started last fall -- exchanges sunk by al-Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq.
President Bush and U.S. military leaders cautioned that the death of the 39-year-old militant was not likely to end the bloodshed -- just as the capture of Saddam Hussein and the killings of his two sons failed to dampen the insurgency. A rash of bombings that killed nearly 40 people in Baghdad on Thursday confirmed that assessment.
Nevertheless, the president called the killing "a severe blow to al-Qaida, and it is a significant victory in the war on terror."
Al-Maliki told al-Arabiya television the $25 million bounty the United States put on al-Zarqawi's head would be honored, saying "we will meet our promise."
Al-Zarqawi was killed at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday after an intense two-week hunt that U.S. officials said first led to the terror leader's spiritual adviser and then to him.
Loud applause broke out as al-Maliki, flanked by U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and U.S. Gen. George Casey, announced at the news conference that "al-Zarqawi was eliminated."
Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the American airstrike targeted "an identified, isolated safe house." Four other people, including a woman and a child, were killed with al-Zarqawi and Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, the terrorist's spiritual consultant.
Al-Qaida confirmed al-Zarqawi's death in a statement Thursday and vowed to continue its "holy war." Curiously, the announcement was signed by al-Iraqi, who was identified as deputy "emir" of the group, perhaps in an attempt to spread confusion over whether he was killed.
The U.S. military released a picture of al-Zarqawi's face after the airstrike, with his eyes closed and spots of blood behind him, an image reminiscent of photos of Saddam's dead sons.
Spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell also showed a videotape of the air assault taken by one of the F-16 fighter jets that dropped the two 500-pound bombs, obliterating the terrorist leader's safe house five miles west of Baqouba.
"We had absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Zarqawi was in the house," Caldwell said.
U.S. and Iraqi intelligence found al-Zarqawi by following al-Iraqi, who was seen going into the house shortly before American jets were ordered into action in the skies 30 mile.s northeast of Baghdad.
Intelligence officials had identified al-Iraqi several weeks ago with help from "somebody inside the al-Zarqawi network," Caldwell said.
"Through a painstaking intelligence effort, we were able to start tracking him, monitor his movements and establish when he was doing his link-up with al-Zarqawi," he said.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, who commands U.S. and coalition air operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, said al-Zarqawi's meeting in the house gave commanders time to gather exact coordinates and redirect the fighters, which were already in the air on other missions.
"We knew exactly where he was and we chose the right moment," North told The Associated Press.
In the final two weeks of the manhunt for al-Zarqawi, Caldwell indicated U.S. and Iraqi forces had pinpointed the location of many other key al-Qaida figures but had held off on attacking them for fear of spooking their boss. Immediately after al-Zarqawi was killed, U.S. and Iraqi forces carried out 17 raids in the Baghdad region, he said.
What may have partly enabled the success now after so long was Khalilzad's efforts to patch up relations with Sunnis.
At the same time, the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi, who was sensitive to U.S.-encouraged derision of a foreigner killing Iraqis, began cozying up to Sunni insurgents. It was probably the move that led to his undoing, said Ed O'Connell, a retired Air Force intelligence officer who led manhunts for Osama bin Laden and others in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.
"Once that happened, all we needed was a guy inside the insurgency to tell us where he was and, bam, we got him," he said.
The airstrike occurred in the village of Hibhib, which is known for producing anise-flavored arak, one of the most popular alcoholic drinks in the Middle East.
The region had seen a spike in gruesome sectarian killings in recent days, including the discovery of 17 severed heads in fruit boxes. Not far away this week, masked gunmen killed 21 Shiites, including a dozen students, after separating out four Sunni Arabs.
Al-Zarqawi was known for his extraordinary brutality as one of the extremist leaders in the largely Sunni Arab insurgency, earning him the title of "the slaughtering sheik" among his followers. He is believed to have wielded the huge knives used in beheading American hostages Nicholas Berg and Eugene Armstrong. Grisly videos of the slayings were posted on the Internet, part of the propaganda campaign that was key to al-Zarqawi's movement.
His followers were responsible for the vast majority of U.S. military deaths and those of thousands of Iraqi Shiites, mainly in a campaign of roadside bombings and suicide attacks.
In the past year, he moved his campaign beyond Iraq's borders, claiming to have carried out a triple suicide bombing against hotels in Amman, Jordan, that killed 60 people, as well as other attacks in his homeland and even a rocket attack from Lebanon into northern Israel.
Caldwell said Egyptian-born Abu al-Masri would likely take the reins of al-Qaida in Iraq. He said al-Masri trained in Afghanistan and arrived in Iraq in 2002 in a bid to establish an al-Qaida cell in the country.
Buoyed by his announcement of al-Zarqawi's death, al-Maliki won parliamentary approval for three important new ministers -- ending a three-week stalemate that many blamed for the outburst of violence.
The new defense minister is Army Gen. Abdul-Qader Mohammed Jassim al-Mifarji, a Sunni Arab, while Shiite Jawad al-Bolani took over the Interior post. The new minister of state for national security, Sherwan al-Waili, who will advise the prime minister, also is a Shiite.
Iraqi police in Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City greeted the news of al-Zarqawi's death by firing their weapons into the air and chanting in elation.
But al-Zarqawi was mourned in Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni-led insurgency.
"This is a black day in Ramadi (the provincial capital). This a great loss for all the Sunnis," 40-year-old worker Abid al-Duleimi said. "If they killed al-Zarqawi, more than one al-Zarqawi will replace him."
Associated Press writers Hamza Hendawi, Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sinan Salaheddin and Qais al-Bashir in Baghdad and Katherine Shrader in Washington contributed to this report.