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Forensic specialists flown to Iraq for al-Zarqawi autopsy

Sunday, June 11, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The U.S. military flew in two forensic specialists Saturday to examine the remains of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi "to see how he actually died" and to reconstruct the last minutes of his life, a spokesman said.

The examination comes after U.S. authorities altered their initial account of the al-Qaida leader's death, first saying he died outright in a U.S. airstrike, then saying he survived but died soon after.

Also, an Iraqi man raised fresh questions, saying he saw U.S. soldiers beating an injured man resembling al-Zarqawi until blood flowed from his nose.

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, said the decision to fly in forensic experts was made shortly after al-Zarqawi's death.

"I think if we don't do a full autopsy then that might irresponsible on our part," Caldwell said. "I think we sort of owe that just for this reason: How did he actually die?"

He said the U.S. government thought it was important enough "that we grabbed two people in the last 48 hours and told them pack up and move to Iraq."

Asked about the claim that U.S. soldiers may have beaten al-Zarqawi after the attack, Caldwell said he would check. In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Jeffrey Gordon said Saturday he was unaware of the claim.

"We frequently receive allegations which prove to be unsubstantiated," Gordon said.

The Iraqi, identified only as Mohammed, said he lives near the house where al-Zarqawi was killed. He said residents put a bearded man in an ambulance before U.S. forces arrived.

"When the Americans arrived they took him out of the ambulance, they beat him on his stomach and wrapped his head with his dishdasha, then they stomped on his stomach and his chest until he died and blood came out of his nose," Mohammed said, without saying how he knew the man was dead.

A dishdasha is a traditional Arab robe.

A similar account in The Washington Post identified the man as Ahmed Mohammed.

No other witnesses have come forward to corroborate the account. U.S. officials have only said al-Zarqawi mumbled and tried to roll off a stretcher before dying.

In announcing al-Zarqawi's death, the U.S. military said Thursday that al-Zarqawi was killed outright when two 500-pound bombs were dropped on his hideout. On Friday, the military said al-Zarqawi survived the bombing, which ripped a crater in the date-palm forest where the house was nestled just outside Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.

"It's not going to be 100 percent accurate all the time, but the first reports are going to be a little confused. There are going to be some conflicting stories," Caldwell said, adding that the military should have an accurate chronology ready by Monday.

He said Iraqi police reached the scene first and found the 39-year-old al-Zarqawi alive.

"The coalition forces arrived on the scene. The Iraqi police were there. They in fact saw a person on a stretcher. They moved to that person immediately. A medical person started immediately applying first aid to that person. Another person was trying to talk to that person, to try to identify who this was. They were trying to talk to him and ask him who he was," Caldwell said.

The airstrike killed two other men, two women and girl between the ages of 5 and 7 who were in the house.

APTN footage of the scene showed a wide swath of destruction.

Debris -- shoes, sandals, a woman's slip -- was scattered over concrete blocks and twisted metal. Trees were ripped from their roots. Charred dresses, torn blankets, thin sponge mattresses and pillows were the crater blasted by the bombs. A cooling unit and part of a washing machine also were in the area.

Lt. Col. Thomas Fisher of the 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Cavalry said his men showed up at the site about five minutes after the blast and cordoned it off. He said they had a patrol in the area already.

"We didn't know it was Zarqawi, we just knew it was a time-sensitive target," he said at the scene early Saturday. "We suspected who it was."


Associated Press writer Ryan Lenz contributed to this report.


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