Showing graphic pictures of the dead al-Qaeda leader’s bloodied head, a spokesman for the US-led coalition on Thursday elaborated on how the operation to strike at Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had unfolded.

The information that led to the air strike that killed him came from within Zarqawi’s own network, said Maj Gen Bill Caldwell.

The information that finally led to the death of Iraq’s most wanted insurgent leader, who carried a $25m (€19.5m, £13.4m) bounty on his head, emerged last December and identified Sheikh Abd al-Rahman as Zarqawi’s spiritual leader. It was by following the sheikh, and a process of “painstaking, deliberate exploitation of intelligence” that the coalition forces were able to pinpoint their target, said Maj Gen Caldwell.

The spokesman did not confirm reports from Jordan that its security services had been instrumental in obtaining the intelligence but he did call Jordan a “good friend” of Iraq.

He said it was “absolutely” the first time coalition forces had pinpointed the location of Zarqawi in a safe house that could be hit without unacceptable collateral damage.

The al-Qaeda leader was staying in an isolated house near the town of Baqouba, some 50km north of Baghdad. US forces verified his presence in the house and then called in an air strike, involving two F16s that launched two 500lb bombs at the house. Apart from Zarqawi, five other people in the house were killed, some of them possibly aides as well as one woman and a child.

Iraqi police were first at the scene following the bombing and, according to Maj Gen Caldwell, Zarqawi was dead by the time they arrived. US forces that arrived later took the al-Qaeda leader’s body, confirming the visual identification with finger prints. The army is also carrying out a DNA test.

Soon after Zarqawi’s identity was confirmed, US and Iraqi forces carried out raids in 17 locations in and around Baghdad, said Maj Gen Caldwell, making numerous arrests and retrieving a “treasure trove” of information.

It was likely that Zarqawi had expected to be killed and had taken precautions, may-be even naming a successor. The next leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq was likely to be Abu al-Masri, an Egyptian who came into the country probably in 2002 and specialises in improvised explosive devices or IEDs, said the spokesman.

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