WASHINGTON – American Special Forces have killed a key lieutenant to terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the top al-Qaida operative in Iraq, U.S. officials said Monday.

The officials requested anonymity because there’s been no official announcement of the death of the terrorist, who used the name Abu Azzam and was believed to be responsible for financing and arranging the movement of foreign fighters into western Iraq from Syria and other countries.

The officials said that U.S.-led forces got a tip about Azzam’s whereabouts, raided a house near Baghdad “within the last day or so” and killed him after he opened fire on them. They declined to provide additional details.

It’s not clear whether Azzam’s death, first reported by CBS News, will be a significant blow to the insurgency, the officials said, although they said that as a native Iraqi he probably had more intimate knowledge of the country, and particularly of its Sunni Muslim tribes and their rivalries, than al-Zarqawi, who’s a Jordanian.

One of the officials cautioned, however, that the deaths of other al-Zarqawi lieutenants “haven’t put much of a dent” in the insurgency or the alliance between Iraqi Sunnis and foreign Islamic militants. “I wouldn’t say that guys like him are a dime a dozen in that part of the world,” said the official. “But they’re not impossible to replace, either.”

However, two things about Azzam’s death could prove to be significant. First, the fact that someone betrayed his whereabouts suggests that the United States and its Iraqi and other allies are getting at least some valuable real-time intelligence about the insurgency. Second, Azzam may have had other intelligence information in his possession that could be useful in disrupting terrorist plans and hunting down other members of al-Zarqawi’s group, or even its elusive leader.

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