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June 9, 2006—Lt. Gen. Gary North, head of US Central Command Air Forces, talked via telephone from Southwest Asia with reporters at the Pentagon on June 8, 2006, describing the June 7, 2006, mission flown by two US Air Force F-16s that led to the death of the top al Qaeda figure in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi. The Vipers were on a pre-planned mission when they wound up playing a crucial role in the destruction of an isolated safe house in a village north of Baqubah, Iraq. (One F-16 fired both weapons used in the air strike.) Following are excerpts from North’s session:

From Routine Patrol to Dedicated Target
A US Air Force F-16 "put two 500-pound-class precision guided munitions into the safe house with devastating accuracy. These F-16s were airborne as part of their routine mission for the day. This was a scheduled group of fighters as part of the 24/7 umbrella of fighter surveillance and support aircraft. In this case, these fighters were on their regularly scheduled mission, and they were passed the intelligence. [The F-16 pilots] developed, over a period of time, the situational awareness of the target area—the direct collaborative work that allowed them to strike the target and destroy the target. The fighters, as all fighters do in this AOR [area of responsibility], had targeting pods. And, these two F-16s had Litening targeting pods, where they were able to examine the target area themselves, derive the proper capability to ensure that in fact the intelligence passed correlated properly.”

A Certified High-Value Target
“The pilots knew that there was an HVT [high value target] in the building, and it was a high target of interest. … Our pilots go out routinely with information that we know [in] the areas we are looking at that particular day; we develop the intelligence with our ground forces and with all of the intelligence capability that the coalition provides; and then we’re able to attack the target set. We knew it was a very deliberate set of very important high value targets. … We knew it was a high value target of interest. We knew with 100-percent assurance that the house that you have seen destroyed was the house that Zarqawi was in. It was a very isolated installation or house out in a date palm grove. And the pilots spent the appropriate amount of time to ensure that the proper clearances were authorized, and that they could then deliver the weapon.”

Weapons for Every Potential
“We outfit all our fighters in the AOR with the appropriate munitions to allow us to strike a wide variety of targets on call as required. In this case, these two F-16s were outfitted with two 500-pound-class munitions. The first one is called the GBU-12, and the GBU-12 is a laser-guided head on a basic general-purpose 500-pound bomb. The second bomb is a 500-pound-class bomb … [with] GPS, and that weapon is called a GBU-38 [Joint Direct Attack Munition]. Also on the airplane is a targeting pod, in this case a Litening pod, which allows the pilot to go in and slew his pod to a designated area, in this case the house, and then magnify the picture that he wants to see to examine. We’ve used this pod with great success to laze targets [and] to then be able to guide the GBU-12 to the target.”

Assessing the Situation
“I would say that as the operation developed … the pilots were able to have the intelligence information passed to them and then work over an orbit over the house to ensure that they could drop [their munitions]. So the timeframe is really insignificant at this point because it was not a time sensitive target, but you wanted to ensure that all the criteria were met so that, once they were given the assurance that Zarqawi was in the house, the pilot could deliver the weapons to the effect that you have seen. We knew exactly where he was; we took our time to ensure everything was correct. The pilots watched the area with their targeting pods to make sure that the target area was in the zone [and] to make sure there weren’t any more people coming into the meeting before they chose to drop.”

No Tip-off
“I would tell you that there is a lot of coalition airplanes overhead all the time. Airplanes coming and going may or may not be of interest to folks on the ground. My experience is that an airplane at medium altitude overhead is a pretty reduced signature, and if I was on the ground, I would not think anything of it.”

The Right Weapons for the Job
“The airplanes are configured with these two particular bombs to give flexibility to our aviators in the air, … so that they can select the particular type of weapon to use based on the desired effects. In this case, the mix of these munitions allowed the pilots to be able to use a laser-guided munition and have the capability to use the GPS-guided munition. In the case of the house, this is an isolated safe house, and if you look at the post-strike target, you can look and see that the house had some pretty extensive construction. … It’s a very well constructed safe house. And with the analysis of the house, the pilots selected the proper weapons to use and the proper settings of the weapons to ensure that the bombs went into the house and exploded. … One, you want the desired destruction, and two you want to be able to get the weapon inside the house so that the explosion is internal.”