BAGHDAD -- Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed today, the Iraqi prime minister said in a startling news conference. The Al Qaeda leader in Iraq died near Baquba after a US-Iraq attack, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said.
US helicopters fired rockets into a house occupied by Zarqawi and a band of men, according to US and Iraqi officials. Iraq troops on the ground removed Zarqawi from the house, and he died as their prisoner, they said.
Other casualties from the house were reported in the attack, including Zarqawi's closest spiritual adviser.
General George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, confirmed that Zarqawi was killed. He said his body has been identified through fingerprints.
Jordanian-born Zarqawi was blamed by the United States for the beheading of foreign captives and suicide bombings that have maimed and killed hundreds in Iraq.
Observers and US military officials warned that they do not expect his death to dramatically lower the violence in Iraq. Much of the increase in recent attacks has been blamed on random sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shi'ites.
Such tensions were high after Monday's abductions of 50 people in downtown Baghdad by gunmen wearing police uniforms and Sunday's shooting deaths of 21 Shi'ites north of the capital, including students pulled from their minivans.
Police said yesterday that 15 of the kidnapped people had been released, some with signs of torture, but provided no details on their identities.
A car bomb struck an outdoor market in a predominantly Shi'ite neighborhood in Baghdad yesterday, killing at least two people and wounding 12, police said -- one of several attacks that killed 21 people nationwide.
Also yesterday, hundreds of newly freed Iraqi prisoners kissed the ground after being dropped at bus stations as Prime Minister Maliki launched the largest such release since the US-led invasion in a bid to appease Sunni Arabs and promote reconciliation in his fractured nation.
Sunni political leaders welcomed the initiative, although some expressed fear the releases would be offset by more arrests. There have been accusations that Sunnis have suffered arbitrary detentions and even torture at the hands of the Shi'ite-led government.
``We want a real solution," said Sunni legislator Mohammed al-Dayeni, calling for all detainees to be released. ``We demand that random raids and arrests be stopped in all Iraqi provinces, and only in that way can we ensure a safe environment."
The government has promised to release a total of 2,000 detainees whose cases have been reviewed, in batches of about 500. The first 594 were freed yesterday from US- and Iraqi-run prisons around the country, including Abu Ghraib.
Maliki has made security and reconciliation a priority of his new government. But he also has vowed to crack down on violence often blamed on the Sunni-led insurgency, and said the release plan excludes loyalists of ousted leader Saddam Hussein, as well as ``terrorists whose hands are stained with the blood of the Iraqi people."
One of the newly freed prisoners, Mohammed Jassim Hameed, said he was arrested Dec. 19, 2004, and accused of kidnapping employees of a cellphone company. He said he had spent time in several US detention centers, including Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca.
``They used to give us the same food every day. We were fed up with it," said Hameed, who is in his 50s.
A woman who identified herself as Um Ahmed said she was told by the Sunni Islamic Party that her husband, Salih Khalid Salih, would be among those released.
``I've been waiting for him for three months," she said, crying because she could not find him among detainees who filed out of buses, many dropping to their knees and kissing the ground in thanks.
Representatives of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni Arab group in the governing coalition, hugged the detainees.
The prime minister said Tuesday that 2,500 prisoners would be released, but his office changed that number to 2,000 yesterday. Iraqi officials have said there is an agreement to release up to 14,000 detainees once their cases have been reviewed. A UN report last month said there were 28,700 detainees in Iraq. Most are believed to be Sunni Arabs.
Omar al-Jubori, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, said the agreement came after negotiations with US Embassy and military officials, as well as street protests. The releases will ``give happiness and hope to every detainee and every oppressed person in this country," Jubori said.
Lieutenant Colonel Kier-Kevin Curry, a spokesman for US military detainee operations, said the releases would be the largest freeing of prisoners over a 30-day period since the war began in March 2003. He said those being freed were not guilty of serious crimes and had agreed to renounce violence.