Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced on Thursday that the most wanted insurgent in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had been killed and the parliament approved Maliki's nominees for three key security portfolios.
Maliki declared Zarqawi's killing at a press conference in Baghdad with top U.S. commander in Iraq General George Casey and U. S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
"Today Zarqawi has been killed," Maliki told reporters.
He said that Zarqawi and seven of his top aides were killed in a joined U.S.-Iraqi raid on an area called Hibhib, near Baquba, some 65 km northeast of Baghdad, on Wednesday evening. Hibhib is about 40 km northeast of Baghdad.
The announcement came six days after Zarqawi called upon his followers in an audio tape to launch a war against Shiites in Iraq.
The killing of the most wanted insurgent in Iraq "constituted a message to all those involved in the insurgency against the state, " said Maliki, vowing to "face all kinds of challenges."
"The sole road for the prosperity of the Iraqi people is by means of unity and national conciliation," he added.
"I thank all my citizens for their services and coordination and I also thank the armed forces and the army and the Multi- national Forces for their leading role," Maliki said.
The prime minister, a prominent Shiite leader, also vowed to further efforts in the fight against insurgents in order to restore safety and order in Iraq, while pledging to strengthen national unity.
Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad described the killing of Zarqawi as "a good omen" to the new Iraqi government and the overall efforts in the war against terror.
Zarqawi's death "did not end violence in Iraq but is a step in the right direction and is a good omen for Iraq, the prime minister and efforts in the global war against terrorism," he said.
Congratulating Maliki on the death of Zarqawi, Khalilzad, meanwhile, also warned of "difficult days ahead" in the fight against terrorists, but he stressed that the Iraqi authorities would "continue to fight terrorism and those who want Iraq to fail. "
In addition, Khalilzad also called upon Iraqi leaders from all the ethnic groups to stick to national unity and put an end to sectarian violence.
General Casey, on his part, said that the U.S. air strike came after an intelligence tip-off and that Zarqawi and his aides were believed to be holding a meeting when the raid occurred.
The top U.S. military commander in Iraq also revealed that Zarqawi's whereabouts was pinpointed about two weeks ago and that his identity was confirmed by fingerprints and facial recognition.
Zarqawi and his aides "have conducted terrorist activities against the Iraqi people for years", he said, lauding Zarqawi's death as "a significant blow to al-Qaida and another step toward defeating terrorism in Iraq."
Zarqawi, with a 25 million U.S. bounty on his head, is believed to be the top leader of the al-Qaida terror group in Iraq. He is accused of being behind some of the most gruesome kidnappings and killings including beheadings in Iraq.
Shortly after announcing Zarqawi's killing, Maliki presented nominees for three security portfolios to parliament.
After the legislature's approval, Abdul Qadir Muhammed Jasim, a Sunni Arab, heads the defense ministry, Jawad al-Bolani, a Shiite, becomes the interior minister and Sherwan al-Waily, also a Shiite, leads the state ministry of national security.
The three ministers were then officially sworn in, vowing to work and cooperate in the interests of all the Iraqis.
The three posts, considered key to curbing rampant violence in Iraq, had remained vacant when the government was formed on May 20, due to political hagglings inside the Shiite bloc and among the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
Maliki had been forced to delay the announcement of the names of the ministers for several times in the past.
The new security ministers will face an uphill battle in restoring safety and order in the violence-plagued country.
As if to underline the difficult task ahead, an explosive charge went off in a popular market in southern Baghdad around Thursday noon, killing at least 13 people and wounding 28 others.