In 2006, Iraq was a very dangerous place to be. Civil war wracked the country, the casualty rates for U.S. troops was the highest it had been since the United States had invaded. It had a lot to do with the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. From 2005 until his death in 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqis and perhaps hundreds of U.S. and coalition troops.

al-Zarqawi had personally murdered and beheaded countless prisoners and began targeting thousands of Shia Muslims in Iraq to the point where even Osama bin Laden had to disavow him for his countless atrocities against fellow Muslims in Iraq.

But al-Zarqawi had a big bulls-eye on his back and although he’d slipped through the fingers of the U.S. a few times before, he wasn’t going to do so again. On June 7, 2006, members of Task Force 145 made sure that al-Zarqawi wouldn’t escape this time and dropped a 500-lb bomb in a building he was hiding in.

Task Force 145, later renamed Task Force 88 was composed of Special Operations units assigned to locate Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein and his sons in Iraq. TF 145 and consisted of commandos from American Delta Force, Navy SEAL Team 6, Army Rangers and British Special Air Service (SAS) as well as members of the FBI and CIA.

Task Force 145 used a process that they called the “unblinking eye” where there was a very close interaction between intelligence and operations. The men wouldn’t wait for intelligence to be confirmed. As soon as it was reported, the troops sprang into action.

As a result the pace of their operations was intense, with the commandos hitting six to seven targets a day, taking down al-Qaeda safe houses, high-value targets and putting a hurt on the terror groups operatives.

Between 2004 and 2006, the Task Force killed or captured about  200 of al-Zarqawi’s associates and operatives. During one of those raids 12 al-Zarqawi troops were killed and the video where al-Zarqawi fired a Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), decked out in New Balance running shoes, was captured.

During one of these raids, an al-Qaeda terrorist told of a group of safe houses where al-Zarqawi was hiding in. The task force launched some commandos from Delta Force to positively ascertain his location, which was located in the Baqubah area.

Hole in the ground where the house stood that al-Zarqawi was hiding it after getting hit with two 500-lb bombs

Once the Delta commandos confirmed the location, the decision was made to take him out. This wasn’t going to be a capture mission, that much, especially considering the ordinance used was clear. The Task Force wasn’t going to risk any of the troops on a highly dangerous takedown of al-Zarqawi’s hideout. Besides, there was never a certainty that al-Zarqawi would allow himself to be captured alive. And although he’d have been a veritable goldmine of intelligence, the risks outweighed the potential and they decided to use not one but two 500-lb bombs.

From a nearby palmetto grove, the Delta Force reconnaissance element of the Task Force guided in both 500 pounders right on top of the target. They completely destroyed the house, reducing it to just rubble and a big smoking hole in the ground.

The official Pentagon briefing stated that al-Zarqawi died shortly after the airstrike from massive internal bleeding and ruptured lungs after he was pulled out of the rubble. But that doesn’t tell the “rest of the story”, as Paul Harvey used to say.

Shortly after the airstrike, a team of Delta and Rangers arrived at the site to do a damage assessment and try to do a positive identification. One of the Rangers there wrote an article for where he describes what happened next:

Before their arrival, the Iraqi police pulled a wounded Zarqawi out of the rubble and loaded him onto a stretcher in the back of a waiting ambulance. An alive, coherent, talking, badly wounded Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was just minutes away from being taken to a hospital where the likelihood of his subsequent survival was a possibility. Before the Iraqi ambulance could depart from the area, the Delta team stopped and commandeered the vehicle. They were in utter disbelief that a survivor had made it out alive, and in even more disbelief to find it was their target, Zarqawi.

For the Delta Force commando in the back of the ambulance, the decision regarding Zarqawi’s fate likely came down to only one choice. Zarqawi was a symbol of the jihadi movement, an even more powerful one than the inactive recluse Osama bin Laden. The operator knew Zarqawi needed to die; he needed to become a martyr for his cause, as twisted as that cause was. As a captured prisoner of the United States, Zarqawi’s men would further exert their evil on the innocent Shiite civilian populations in a misguided quest to secure his release.

“Shut the door,” the man called to his teammate. No call was made over the radio to the Joint Operations Center in nearby Balad Air Base to update their current situation. It would likely be better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. These Delta commandos operated at a level of responsibility and decision-making that even other special operations units found to be unrealistic. They exist to hunt down terrorists around the world. But more importantly, they exist to save the lives of others.

He looked down upon the face of true evil. The conscious Zarqawi struggled to free himself of the stretcher, but his broken and wounded body was unable to react to what the mind was asking of it. When the Commando stepped away from the ambulance Zarqawi had passed to the other side.

Zarqawi would find out sooner then he thought, that Allah would have no virgins or “garden of bliss” waiting for him in heaven.

This decision was likely made on the ground; a strategic decision that carried with it the weight of all armed forces in Iraq. It was the right decision which surely saved hundreds if not thousands more lives and brought about the beginning of the end to Al-Qaeda’s reign in Iraq.

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al-Zarqawi and his “spiritual adviser” Sheikh al-Rahman were dead and were laid out as the Pentagon snapped propaganda photos of the two. Although his face was bloated and swollen from the explosion, there was no mistaking the same al-Zarqawi who had frequently videotaped boasts and pronouncements.

General Stanley McChrystal and his staff looked on with grim satisfaction. One of his colonels on the Task Force staff looked down and said what everyone else was thinking, “That is one dead son of a bitch”, he said.

Although the killing of al-Zarqawi was a big piece of propaganda for the coalition in 2006, it, in reality, was little more than just a bump in the road. While Iraq isn’t as dangerous as it was in 2006, it is still far from pacified and has since had to deal with the Islamic State. Peace is still a difficult commodity there.

Photos: DOD