Nuri al-Maliki announced the killing of Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of an organisation known as al-Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers, at a news conference in Baghdad broadcast live by Iraqi state and international media organisations on Thursday.

He said al-Zarqawi was killed along with seven aides on Wednesday evening in an air strike on a house 50km northeast of Baghdad, in the province of Diyala, just east of the provincial capital, Baquba.

"Today, al-Zarqawi was eliminated," al-Maliki told a news conference, drawing applause from reporters in the hall where he made the announcement, flanked by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador, and US General George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq.

Al-Zarqawi's identity was confirmed by fingerprints.

Al-Maliki said the air strike was the result of intelligence reports provided to Iraqi security forces by residents in the area, and US forces acted on the information.

"Those who disrupt the course of life, like al-Zarqawi, will have a tragic end," he said.

Success

Khalilzad said: "The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a huge success for Iraq and the international war on terror."

The US had put a $25 million price
on al-Zarqawi's head

The Jordanian-born fighter, who is believed to have beheaded at least two American hostages, became Iraq's most wanted man.

The US had put a $25 million bounty on al-Zarqawi, the same as on Osama bin Laden.

Campaign

In the past year, al-Zarqawi had moved his campaign beyond Iraq's borders, claiming to have carried out a November 9, 2005, triple bombing against hotels in Amman that killed 60 people, as well as other attacks in Jordan and even a rocket attack from Lebanon into northern Israel.

An al-Zarqawi photo released by
the US state department in 2004

US forces and their allies had come close to capturing al-Zarqawi several times since his campaign began in mid-2003.

His closest brush may have come in late 2004.

Major-General Hussein Kamal, the then deputy interior ministry, said Iraqi security forces caught al-Zarqawi near Falluja but then released him because they did not realise who he was.

In May 2005, web statements by his group said al-Zarqawi had been wounded in fighting with Americans and was being treated in a hospital abroad - raising speculation over a successor. But days later, a statement said al-Zarqawi was fine and had returned to Iraq.

Previous attempts

There was never any independent confirmation of the reports of his wounding.

US forces believe they also just missed capturing al-Zarqawi in a February 20, 2005, raid in which troops closed in on his vehicle, west of Baghdad, near the Euphrates river.

His driver and another associate were captured and al-Zarqawi's computer was seized along with pistols and ammunition.

US soldiers twice launched massive invasions of Falluja. An April 2004 offensive left the city still in fighters' hands, but the October 2004 assault wrested it from them. However, al-Zarqawi - if he was in the city - escaped.