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Iraq Transition

Pentagon: Troops nearly caught al-Zarqawi

Vehicle chase netted bin Laden lieutenant instead

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is blamed for several attacks on U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians.
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CNN's Jamie McIntyre has more on the report of al-Zarqawi's near-capture.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
Osama Bin Laden

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- American troops nearly captured wanted terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi earlier this year in Iraq, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.

"We were close," Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon.

Myers said he couldn't elaborate because it would be "unhelpful" to divulge operation details. He did say the intelligence in Iraq is "getting better."

Earlier in the day, Pentagon officials said troops apparently just missed getting al-Zarqawi but did net what they called a "trusted lieutenant" of Osama bin Laden.

Troops were tipped off February 20 that al-Zarqawi might be heading to a meeting in Ramadi, west of Falluja, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The officials said al-Zarqawi's vehicle was under aerial surveillance from an unmanned Predator spy plane.

Troops set up checkpoints along the route, and at one, al-Zarqawi's truck turned around to avoid it, the officials said. Troops ran the vehicle down after several miles but found al-Zarqawi apparently had escaped, they said.

The troops did seize two men in the operation -- al-Zarqawi's driver and security guard -- one of whom the officials described as a "trusted lieutenant" of bin Laden.

They also took a computer from the truck containing what the officials said was "a treasure trove of information."

The officials said the find was significant -- a clear indication al-Zarqawi and bin Laden are in two-way communication and that bin Laden couriers are able to get into Iraq.

"No question, Zarqawi is now an al Qaeda," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon briefing with Myers.

"The intelligence experts in our government and I believe ... that they have engaged in a process and become connected in a variety of different ways."

Rumsfeld said it's generally believed in the U.S. government that bin Laden may be giving "broad direction" to al-Zarqawi's group, now called al Qaeda in Iraq.

Al-Zarqawi is a Jordanian-born terrorist whose group has claimed responsibility for numerous car bombings, kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq.

The Bush administration identified al-Zarqawi as an al Qaeda terrorist who fled to Iraq from Afghanistan in May 2002 for medical treatment.

According to the government, al-Zarqawi stayed in Iraq to organize terror plots with Ansar al-Islam, a radical Islamic group that operated a training camp in northern Iraq that came under coalition control during the U.S.-led invasion.

Last year, al-Zarqawi pledged his allegiance to bin Laden, who later praised the insurgent leader's work against coalition troops in Iraq.

Rumsfeld said he believes al-Zarqawi is on the run.

"I think life for a terrorist, an extremist, in that country is hard," he said. "There's a lot of pressure put on them, on their funding, on their recruiting, on their retention, on their movements."

Rumsfeld said a portion of al-Zarqawi's recruits and financial help are coming from outside Iraq.

"They undoubtedly come through Syria and they come through Iran, probably, and through other countries to be available for tasks that he has in mind," Rumsfeld said. "And money comes in as well."

Myers said people "bent on jihad" will find a way to get money and fighters for their cause.

"Zarqawi is, by all accounts, pretty well-financed, and he has a number of young folks bent on jihad that he puts right into the fight and right into the suicide vehicles," Myers said.

He said that while intelligence coming in on the insurgency in Iraq is getting better, "we still don't have Zarqawi, and there are other leaders that we are looking for as well."

CNN's Barbara Starr and Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.

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