BAGHDAD, Iraq – The American military flew in two forensic specialists Saturday to examine the body of slain Al Qaeda chieftain Abu Musab al-Zarqawi "to see how he actually died" in an effort to reconstruct the last minutes of his life, a U.S. general said.
The experts were carrying out an autopsy on al-Zarqawi's body after it was made public that he survived an airstrike Wednesday that killed five other people, including a man identified by the U.S. military his spiritual adviser, Sheik Abdul-Rahman.
"I think if we don't do a full autopsy then that might irresponsible on our part," Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a spokesman for the U.S. military, said in Baghdad.
He said a decision was taken shortly after Zarqawi was killed to remove any doubts about how the Jordanian-born leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq died.
"I think we sort of owe that just for this reason: how did he actually die? And when you bring in a certified medical expert who's trained and specializes in that skill of doing a thorough analysis of a deceased person, they tell you exactly how they died, I think is, in case, very, very important," Caldwell said.
He said the U.S. government also thought it was important enough "that we grabbed two people in the last 48 hours and told them pack up and move to Iraq."
U.S. officials have altered their account Zarqawi's death, saying he was alive and partly conscious after bombs destroyed his hide-out.
In announcing his death on Thursday, the U.S. military said Zarqawi was killed outright when two 500-pound bombs were dropped on his safehouse.
But on Friday, the military said Zarqawi survived the bombing, which tore a huge crater in the date palm forest where the house was nestled just outside Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
"It's not going to be 100 percent accurate all the time, but the first reports are going to be a little confused. There are going to be some conflicting stories," Caldwell said, and promised that the military should have an accurate chronology ready by Monday.
He said Iraqi police reached the scene first and found the 39-year-old al-Zarqawi alive.
"The coalition forces arrived on the scene. The Iraqi police were there. They in fact saw a person on a stretcher. They moved to that person immediately. A medical person started immediately applying first aid to that person. Another person was trying to talk to that person, to try to identify who this was. They were trying to talk to him and ask him who he was," Caldwell said.
AP footage of the date palm grove showed debris — concrete blocks, shoes and sandals — scattered over a wide area around a large crater. Trees around the blast site were ripped from their roots.
The airstrike killed two other men, two women and girl between the ages of 5 and 7 who were in the house, but only al-Zarqawi and his spiritual adviser, identified by Caldwell as Sheik Abu Abdul-Rahman, have been positively identified.
On Saturday, Caldwell said he would check reports that the man was in fact Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, who analysts have said may be a different man — the group's deputy leader who signed the Al Qaeda statement announcing Zarqawi's death.
Caldwell said the operation to kill Zarqawi involved three weeks of painstaking surveillance of Abdul Rahman's movements until he reached the house nestled among the date palms.
"When he arrived at that house, that safe house, it was very apparent at that point that all the preconditions that would indicate a meeting was occurring had been met. And so the decision was made to go ahead and strike that target."
From a helicopter hovering above, a wide swath of destruction could be seen. The debris around the site included a women's slip and other pieces of clothing. Charred dresses, torn blankets, thin sponge mattresses and pillows were in the crater itself.
The debris of concrete blocks and twisted metal reinforcement bars included a pillow with a floral pattern, sandals and a foam mattress with the covering torn off. A cooling unit and part of a washing machine also were in the area.
Lt. Col. Thomas Fisher of the 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Cavalry said his men showed up at the site about five minutes after the blast and cordoned it off. He said they had a patrol in the area already.
"We didn't know it was Zarqawi, we just knew it was a time-sensitive target," he said at the scene early Saturday. "We suspected who it was."
Caldwell also said experts told him it is not unheard of for people to survive a blast of that magnitude. He said he did not know if Zarqawi was inside or outside the house when the bombs struck.