The takedown was largely a military effort. But a U.S. official told TIME that American intelligence operatives played an important role in determining that Sheik Abd-al-Rahman, Zarqawi's spiritual adviser, was a key link who could lead to Zarqawi himself. "Intelligence was useful in identifying this individual and his importance to Zarqawi," the U.S. official said. "It's as though you had identified Frank Nitti with the knowledge that eventually he would lead you to Al Capone. This was the culmination of a huge amount of effort."
The ability of the U.S. and its allies to isolate and eliminate Zarqawi may be a reflection of the Qaeda leader's growing isolation within Iraq. Six weeks ago, Zarqawi released an unprecedented video showing himself walking around Iraq, unmasked and in daylight, firing weapons and boasting of his continued primacy in the fight against the U.S. But that video itself may have been a response to growing rumors that the 38-year-old Jordanian was being marginalized within the insurgency out of concern by other leaders that his televised beheadings of helpless hostages was alienating even many Iraqis sympathetic to the insurgency, and that his strategy of mass murder of Shi'ites in the hope of provoking a civil war was a road to disaster. Even other leaders of al-Qaeda had publicly questioned some of these tactics, while some of the more nationalist leaders of the insurgency who had been quietly negotiating with the U.S. and Iraqi government had made no secret of their animosity toward Zarqawi and the al-Qaeda agenda. The announcement, just a day before Zarqawi's death, that the new Iraqi government would release some 2,500 Sunnis imprisoned for assisting the insurgency suggests that rapprochement between the government and the Sunni nationalist element of the insurgency may be accelerating, which was bad news for Zarqawi.
Back in his home town, Zarqa, in Jordan, a 12-foot banner was erected Thursday outside the home of Zarqawi’s brother, Sayel "Abu Omar" al-Khalayilaht. In blue letters on white, it proclaimed "the wedding of the hero martyr Abu Mousab al Zarqawi," a reference to the belief among his supporters that his "martyrdom" in the jihad against America has set him on a wedding-like procession to paradise. Veiled women weeping near the house were admonished by al-Khalayilaht, who said "Don't cry, but ululate, for he is a hero and a martyr." That sentiment is unlikely to be widely echoed in Iraq, where Zarqawi is best remembered for terror attacks that killed thousands of Iraqi Muslims.
The fact that intelligence agencies were able to close in on a man who had eluded capture for three years, during which his terror operations left thousands of Iraqis dead, suggests that some of those close enough to know Zarqawi's whereabouts and connections may have been ready to shop him to his enemies. Not necessarily, of course: The intel services could have simply gotten a lucky break through the slow but steady gathering of information, or Zarqawi could have made a mistake. Either way, a key agent in the chaos gripping Iraq has now been taken out of the equation. "It is wonderful," said the Jordanian official. "Another window of hope that things hopefully, insh'Allah, will be on track."
With reporting by Timothy Burger/Washington and Saad Hattar/Amman