WASHINGTON – A U.S. military search of the destroyed safehouse where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed yielded documents and information storage devices that are being assessed for potential use against his terror network, a military officer said Friday.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because results from the safehouse search have not been announced, said an M-16 rifle and an unspecified number of grenades and AK-47 rifles also were found. The M-16 was fitted with special optics, the official said.
Also found were "media and documents," the officer said, adding that the term "media" as used in this context normally refers to information storage devices such as computer hard drives, digital cameras or other devices. The officer was unable to be specific in this case.
The material was being assessed for possible use, the officer added.
Earlier Friday, a senior U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said many items had been found in raids over the past two days based on intelligence gathered from Zarqawi's safehouse, which was flattened by two U.S. bombs on Wednesday.
Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon by video-teleconference from his office in Baghdad, said that after 17 raids in the immediate aftermath of the airstrike, more were launched on Thursday.
Caldwell displayed digital photographs of recovered items that he said included a suicide belt, a flak vest, passports and identification cards, vehicle license plates, ammunition belts, rifles and other guns and a night-vision device. He said they were found under the floorboards of a building; he did not identify the location.
Caldwell also said the man he thinks is a possible successor to Zarqawi as leader of the shadowy terrorist group known as Al Qaeda in Iraq has been operating in Iraq longer than Zarqawi and that the two first met in Afghanistan. He was referring to Abu Ayyub al-Masri, whom he described as an Egyptian-born terrorist leader.
He said al-Masri has had "communications" with Usama bin Laden's chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri. He did not elaborate and would not say whether al-Masri also has been in touch with bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in Pakistan.
The spokesman also disclosed that Zarqawi was still alive when U.S. troops arrived on the scene after Wednesday's airstrike by an F-16 fighter. The terrorist "mumbled a little something" and made an apparent effort to get away after being placed on a stretcher by Iraqi police, Caldwell said. On Thursday U.S. officials had said Zarqawi was dead when he was found. Caldwell said new information indicated that he survived a short time.
Caldwell also suggested the possibility that Zarqawi was not inside the safehouse when it was attacked. He said he spoke with several knowledgeable Air Force officers on Friday to learn how it was possible for Zarqawi to have survived, even for a short time, the devastating power of two 500-pound bombs.
"They assured me that there are cases when people, in fact, can survive even an attack like that on a building structure," Caldwell said. "Obviously, the other five in the building did not, but he did for some reason. And we do not know — and I've looked through the report — as to whether or not it was because he might have been right outside (the targeted building) or whatever. We just don't have that granularity."
On Thursday, Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., was asked about U.S. military photos that showed a dead Zarqawi with relatively little apparent physical damage to his face. She said the two bombs, which flattened the safehouse, "didn't hit directly where he was so he was probably killed by debris or the blast effect."
Wilson, an Air Force veteran, is a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
In describing the military raids conducted based on intelligence from the Zarqawi safehouse, Caldwell said one targeted individual, whom he did not identify, was killed in the latest raids and at least 25 were captured.
Pentagon officials have refused to say whether U.S. special operations forces participated in the Zarqawi operation Wednesday, but a comment Friday by President Bush suggested that some of the military's most secretive units may have been involved on the ground.
Speaking to reporters, Bush mentioned that among the senior officers he called to offer congratulations for killing Zarqawi was Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of Joint Special Operations Command, whose forces include the Army's clandestine counterterrorism unit, Delta Force.
Asked whether Zarqawi was shot after U.S. ground troops arrived at the scene of the airstrike, Caldwell said he could not give a definitive answer based on what he had read in the latest official U.S. military report on the event. "I'll go back and specifically ask that," he said. "But no, there was nothing in the report that said he had received any wounds from some kind of weapons system like that."
Caldwell said the U.S. military was still compiling details of the event, including the exact amount of time Zarqawi was alive after the attack. He said an initial analysis of Zarqawi's body had been done but he was not certain whether it constituted a full autopsy.
In an interview earlier Friday with Fox News Channel, Caldwell was more descriptive of Zarqawi's actions before he died.
"He was conscious initially, according to the U.S. forces that physically saw him," Caldwell told Fox. "He obviously had some kind of visual recognition of who they were because he attempted to roll off the stretcher, as I am told, and get away, realizing it was U.S. military."
Caldwell indicated that U.S. troops "went into the process to provide medical care to him" before Zarqawi expired.