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It is a great day," former U.S. ambassador to Jordan Edward W. Gnehm Jr. told WORLD hours after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the insurgency in Iraq, had been killed in a June 7 airstrike.

The 39-year-old Jordanian-born terrorist, according to Mr. Gnehm, was "a threat on an almost daily basis" during his 2001-2004 stint as the leading U.S. official in Amman. Mr. Gnehm, a career diplomat who arrived in Amman on Sept. 10, 2001, and was also the U.S. ambassador in Kuwait when Saddam Hussein invaded there in 1990, retired from his post in 2004, and now teaches at George Washington University.

The optimism which followed Zarqawi's death, he said, "is not just an American feeling. The Jordanians were roused by what he did too. This is a great success."

Most Americans came face to face with the menace known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in May 2004. Although the al-Qaeda in Iraq mastermind wore a burlap sack as he flashed a sword before the video camera, he distinguished himself in those grim moments by viciously and in one breathtakingly swift motion slicing off the head of American businessman Nicholas Berg. Jihadists posted the videotape of the kidnapped worker's killing on the internet, and the United States and its allies entered a new and ever grimmer battle over Iraq.

Zarqawi went on to take credit for numerous beheadings and other acts of terror against Westerners and Iraqis. Most notably he was behind the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004, and the triple suicide bombings in Amman, Jordan, late last year. Zarqawi-instigated bombings of mosques and other landmarks killed hundreds of Iraqis, as he worked to spawn a Shiite-Sunni conflict as a means to undermine democracy in Iraq.

But for U.S. officials Zarqawi's lineage goes back even further. A Jordanian court sentenced him to death in absentia for the 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley. In 2004 he was also sentenced to death in absentia, this time by a Jordanian military court, for a plot to carry out a chemical attack against Jordan. Police in Amman who uncovered the plot estimated that it could have killed 80,000 people and destroyed both the U.S. embassy and Jordan's intelligence headquarters.

In his prewar briefing before the UN, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell called Zarqawi in February 2003 the "sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network." One of Zarqawi's lieutenants, Amer el Azizi, organized and presided over the 2001 meeting in Spain where Mohammed Atta and other al-Qaeda members capped planning for the 9/11 attacks.

In the end it was a videotape that did in Zarqawi. Unmasked before the camera in a film released in April, where the chemical weapons expert actually showed difficulty operating a machine gun, Zarqawi gave himself away in the footage. Coalition forces combined clues in the videotape with information they were receiving from Zarqawi insiders to begin tracking the al-Qaeda in Iraq leader and his latest spiritual advisor, Sheik Abdul Rahman.

Army Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell, briefing reporters in Baghdad about four hours after confirmation of the strike, said intelligence combined with insider tips led to "a treasure trove" of data that allowed coalition forces to pick out 17 locations around the Iraqi capital and begin tracking the terror leader's movements.

On June 7, he said, the United States and its allies received for the first time "definitive information of his whereabouts" and moved into position outside Baquba. With Iraqi police on the scene, an Air Force--led task force dropped a bomb on the safe house where Zarqawi and his advisors were meeting and an Army reaction force moved in to secure the perimeter.

After the attack, the house a heap of concrete rubble dotted by colorful swaths of furnishings and clothing, U.S. forces extracted Zarqawi's body and within hours confirmed that their mission was a success.

Zarqawi "met his end," as President Bush phrased it, near a grove of date palms in Hibhib, a small town just outside Baquba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Hibhib produces some of the region's best Arak, an anise-flavored liquor. More recently the area became a nest of terror activity as severed heads of Iraqi civilians began appearing in fruit boxes in and around town. Last week 21 Iraqis, mostly high-school students, were dragged from a bus and gunned down on the highway, a cold-blooded attack that confirmed for locals a terror cell was operating in the neighborhood.

Zarqawi reportedly fled to the Diyala province town after tribal leaders in Ramadi refused to endorse his activities. But Hibhib residents didn't want him, either. Prime Minister al-Maliki said locals were the primary lead in the search to pinpoint Zarqawi's location. The raid killed seven aides altogether, including Sheikh Abdul Rahman and two women who collected intelligence for al-Qaeda.

U.S. Ambassador Gnehm, who was a friend of Laurence Foley and said "friends of friends" were killed by Zarqawi in last year's Amman bombings, said, "Everybody is right to be cautioning that this insurgency will go on. But Zarqawi was a unique figure, in that he was a skilled planner and also a motivator of people." Mr. Gnehm said other al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders may arise in Zarqawi's place, but "his death will improve the situation. There is no one else in the organization with his charisma and his mental scope. Zarqawi was the most prominent insurgent, and the fact that he is now gone will make a difference."

Iraqis hope his death will ease rising Shiite-Sunni tensions also. "He put the Sunni leadership in Iraq in a precarious position of self-preservation," said Mr. Gnehm. To protect their positions, Sunni leaders were asked to side with the insurgents or be killed. "With him gone I believe that we will see maybe that is not the problem it has been."

Mr. Maliki, the first to release news of the successful killing at a Thursday afternoon press conference in Baghdad with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalizhad by his side, at the same time announced the completion of his cabinet. He named Shiite Javad al-Bolani to head the interior ministry and Sunni Gen. Abdelkadir Jesim to lead the defense ministry. With their appointment approved by parliament, the country launched its first day without Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with its first democratically elected permanent government.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.