The U.S. Defense Department confirms that U.S. forces in Iraq just missed capturing one of the most-wanted terrorists in that country, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, during a raid which netted two Zarqawi associates. It was an Iraqi tip which led to that operation and U.S. military officials say they are getting more and more intelligence information from Iraqis.
Richard Myers, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the report, but he would not reveal any operational details. General Myers told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday the near capture was due to an increase in information coming from Iraqi civilians.
"I think, in general, intelligence is getting better. Having said that, we still don't have Zarqawi, and there are other leaders we are looking for as well. But, in general, it's getting much better," General Myers said.
General Myers used the shooting down of a commercial helicopter in Iraq last week as an example. It was a tip from an eyewitness that alerted U.S. military officials to that attack. General Myers says because of information from Iraqis, ten suspects are now in U.S. custody, just a few days after the helicopter was hit by a missile.
The recent attempt to capture Zarqawi also began with a tip from an Iraqi source. Though they haven't officially been made public, ABC News obtained details of the operation - from a senior U.S. military official. According to that source, Zarqawi was heading to a secret meeting in Ramadi on February 20. Checkpoints were set up around the perimeter of the city, and predator drones tracked movements in and out of Ramadi.
According to the source, authorities pulled over a car approaching a checkpoint. And almost immediately, a pickup truck nearly a kilometer behind the car, turned around, and headed in the opposite direction. That convinced officials Zarqawi was in that truck. U.S. teams stopped it several kilometers later. Zarqawi was not in the vehicle by then, apparently he had jumped out, but his driver and his bodyguard were. So was more than 100,000 Euros. But perhaps the biggest discovery was Zarqawi's computer, which a source says was packed with information that could help track the terrorist leader.
"It could yield a tremendous amount of clues as to the nature of his organization, the insurgency, where they get their money, where their operations are planned and carried out," said Thomas Sanderson, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Jordanian-born terrorist is the self-described leader of "al Qaida in Iraq," a group which has claimed responsibility for multiple bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and attacks on aircraft. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday, Zarqawi's network is responsible for a large number of attacks in Iraq, despite its small size.
"In terms of lethality, I would rank him quite highm" he said. "He may be doing it through proxies, through criminals, in some cases. But there have been quite a few suicide attacks in Iraq, and that is not something that criminals tend to get up in the morning and say, 'Gee, I think I'll do engage in a suicide attack."
Secretary Rumsfeld added that Sunni insurgents are also not likely to carry out suicide attacks. That, he said, is being done by extremists, mostly coming into Iraq from other countries.