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Error that led to Zarqawi’s escape

British troops came close to capturing al Qaeda’s top commander and the occupation forces’ most wanted target in Iraq — but the operation collapsed after the only surveillance helicopter ordered to monitor him ran out of fuel and had to return, secret military intelligence logs suggest.

world Updated: Oct 24, 2010 22:59 IST

British troops came close to capturing al Qaeda’s top commander and the occupation forces’ most wanted target in Iraq — but the operation collapsed after the only surveillance helicopter ordered to monitor him ran out of fuel and had to return, secret military intelligence logs suggest.

The astonishing blunder in March 2005 allowed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — a Jordanian associate of Osama bin Laden with a $25m reward on his head — an extra 15 months to expand al Qaeda’s operations throughout Iraq, bringing the country close to civil war. His fundamentalist Sunni supporters were behind some of the worst atrocities aimed at Iraq’s Shia majority population as well as countless attacks on US and Iraqi forces. Their bombing of a sacred golden-domed Shia shrine in Samarra in February 2006 led to a wave of revenge killings that lasted for a year and a half.

He was eventually located by the Americans in a house north of Baghdad in June 2006 and killed with his family by a US air strike.

His narrow escape from British troops and a unit of British special forces emerges from the secret military intelligence logs examined by the Guardian. They report that on 17 March 2005 the G3 cell of army intelligence at British brigade headquarters in Basra heard that Zarqawi was travelling south on route 6 from Amarah to Basra. They informed Danish forces at 2.15pm. The Danes played a junior role in the coalition under overall British command in south-eastern Iraq.

Half an hour later, the report says, a Lynx helicopter spotted a suspicious car that had stopped 7.5 miles (12km) south of al-Qurna and about 60 miles north of Basra.

Al-Qurna is a dusty flyblown Mesopotamian town that is claimed, inappropriately in view of its present condition, as the site of the biblical Garden of Eden.

US forces in Iraq invariably sent helicopters in pairs. The report says the helicopter maintained “top cover” for 15minutes but then had to return to the UK-run Shaiba logistics base to refuel.

“As a result the area of interest was unobserved for between 20 and 30 min,” the report adds. The Guardian