HIBHIB, Iraq -- The two bombs fell in the heart of the orchard near this village north of Baghdad a little more than a minute apart. Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi's last refuge, a whitewashed house in an idyllic rural setting, was obliterated.
Yesterday, three days after al-Zarqawi was killed, the U.S. military brought a group of reporters to see the slabs of concrete and twisted metal that are all that remain of the house. U.S. troops who combed through the debris left the more mundane items: candy wrappers, a child's shoe, a torn page of a May 2 copy of the Arabic language edition of Newsweek, and a threadbare leopard-print slip.
Neither the rubble nor the items left behind offered many clues about al-Zarqawi or the people who died with him. Also, questions remained about the final minutes of the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.
In a briefing with reporters, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, a U.S. military spokesman, said two doctors had been brought to Iraq to conduct an autopsy.
Results from the examination will be made public within days, Caldwell said.
He also confirmed the death in the bombing of a girl age 5 to 7. Two unidentified women and one man were killed in addition to al-Zarqawi and his spiritual adviser, Sheik Abdel Rahman, Caldwell said.
U.S. officials had said at first that al-Zarqawi and at least five others had died, including a woman and a child, but then changed to say that seven people died, none of them children.
Caldwell said that early reports after a military operation can include hazy or contradictory details. "There is no intention on anybody's behalf to engage in deception, manipulation or evasion," he said.
After first reporting that al-Zarqawi was dead by the time U.S. troops arrived, U.S. officials also now agree with Iraqis who said that the leader of the terrorist organization died at the site in the presence of U.S. troops.
Yesterday, U.S. commanders in nearby Baqouba said that local Iraqi police, unaware of the top-secret bombing mission, heard the two blasts and dispatched officers and an ambulance to the orchard. Stationed less than two miles away, the officers arrived within 10 minutes.
Finding al-Zarqawi wounded, they put him on a stretcher, according to accounts from both Iraqi police and U.S. military officials.
U.S. military officials say troops who arrived moments later quickly identified al-Zarqawi and strapped him to the gurney when he began to move. "He died almost immediately thereafter from the wounds he'd received from this airstrike," Caldwell said.
U.S. officials denied several news reports that al-Zarqawi was abused by U.S. troops before he died.
An Iraqi police lieutenant who said he was among the first people at the scene told the Los Angeles Times yesterday that after Iraqi police had carried al-Zarqawi to the ambulance on the stretcher, arriving U.S. troops took him off the stretcher and placed him on the ground. One of the Americans tried to question al-Zarqawi and repeatedly stepped on his chest, causing blood to flow from his mouth and nose, said the lieutenant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A U.S. military spokesman said by e-mail yesterday that there was "no evidence to support claims asserting that coalition forces 'beat' Abu Mussab Zarqawi."
"Although Zarqawi was mortally wounded, a coalition medic treated him while he lapsed in and out of consciousness," the spokesman said.
The U.S. military said intelligence specialists had been following the movements of Rahman, al-Zarqawi's spiritual adviser, for weeks. When it became clear Wednesday that Rahman was meeting al-Zarqawi, American commanders ordered the pilot of an F-16 fighter jet that was on a routine mission in the area to drop the two bombs on the house.
How long al-Zarqawi and the others had lived at the house was not clear, military officials said.
Lt. Col. Thomas Fisher, commander of the 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Cavalry, said the previous owner told American military officials that he had sold the house two months ago. Neighbors said that they observed a family moving in about 10 days ago but that there had been little traffic to and from the house.
"We go up and down these roads every day," said Maj. Angel Brito, commander of the battalion's Charlie Company, which patrols Hibhib. "I was very surprised. There were no clues."
Brito said he had received several congratulatory calls from local leaders, but for him the celebration was tinged with frustration. Al-Zarqawi "was under my nose the whole time," he said.
Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.