U.S. forces in Iraq believe they just missed capturing most-wanted terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a February raid that netted two of his associates, a senior U.S. military official said Tuesday.
The official, who discussed the operation on the condition of anonymity, could provide no details on how Zarqawi escaped. U.S. forces recovered a computer belonging to Zarqawi, the official said, although he did not say how it was obtained.
Iraqi officials announced the Feb. 20 raid at the time but did not say Zarqawi was the target.
Al-Zarqawi, who has a $25 million bounty on his head, is believed to have orchestrated a relentless wave of car bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and beheadings across the country.
He was on his way from Fallujah to a meeting in Ramadi when he caught wind of U.S. troops in the area, ABC News reported late Monday, citing an unidentified senior military official. Troops with a covert military unit were reportedly in place to arrest the fugitive.
The official said that just before the meeting was scheduled, a car was pulled over as it approached a checkpoint. A pickup truck trailing the car then turned and headed in the opposite direction.
Officials believe Zarqawi was in the fleeing truck, but when U.S. teams pulled the vehicle over several miles later, he was not inside, ABC reported. The official told the network that Zarqawi apparently jumped out of the vehicle when it passed beneath an overpass and hid there before escaping.
Inside the truck, the official told ABC, U.S. troops found Zarqawi's computer and about $104,000.
NBC, quoting U.S. military sources, reported Tuesday that among the items seized with the laptop were several small plug-in hard drives. Numerous pictures of Zarqawi were found in the computer's "My Pictures" file, the network said.
Captured in the Feb. 20 operation was Talib Mikhlif Arsan Walman al-Dulaymi, also known as Abu Qutaybah, an Iraqi government announcement said at the time.
Qutaybah "filled the role of key lieutenant for the Zarqawi network, arranging safe houses and transportation as well as passing packages and funds to al-Zarqawi," the government said.
It said Qutaybah was a known associate of other al-Zarqawi lieutenants already held by coalition forces, including Abu Ahmed, an al Qaeda-linked insurgent leader in the northern city of Mosul, who was detained Dec. 22.
During the same raid, Iraqi forces captured another al-Zarqawi aide who "occasionally acted as his driver," the government said. He was identified as Ahmad Khalid Marad Ismail al-Rawi, who also helped arrange meetings for al-Zarqawi. He also is known as Abu Uthman.
A few days afterward, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Fox News Channel "we've been very close" to capturing Zarqawi.