- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 11, 2006

Two 500-pound bombs dropped by a U.S. F-16 fighter jet last week killed the face of the Iraqi insurgency.

The next few weeks could determine what those bombs did to the insurgency’s heart and soul.

U.S. officials and private analysts agree that the stunning news of the death of al Qaeda terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi on Wednesday evening at an unsafe “safe house” in the village of Hibhib near Baghdad provides a critical testing period for both the Iraqi insurgents and for the fledgling government of new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Which side can seize the momentum in the next few weeks could determine whether the death of Zarqawi and several key lieutenants marks a true “turning point” in the bloody three-year standoff.

Zarqawi’s death was “a major political and propaganda victory” for the al-Maliki government and for the U.S.-led military coalition, said Anthony H. Cordesman, military analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But its long-term significance, he added, will hinge on “the overall resilience of the insurgency in Iraq and how well the new Iraqi government can follow up with actions that build a national consensus and defeat and undermine all the elements of the insurgency.”

President Bush, who recently said he regretted some of his hard-line statements in the heady early days of the Iraq campaign in 2003, for once appeared almost to underplay the significance of the U.S. military strike, repeatedly cautioning since Wednesday that Zarqawi’s death does not mean victory in Iraq or even a respite from the daily toll of suicide attacks and other terrorist strikes.

“Removing Zarqawi is a major blow to al Qaeda, but it’s not going to end the war,” Mr. Bush said at a Friday press conference with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen at Camp David. “It’s certainly not going to end the violence, but it’s going to help a lot.”

Mr. Bush was so restrained that at one point he felt the need to insist he was “thrilled” that Zarqawi had been killed.

The president and his senior security advisers will meet tomorrow at Camp David to discuss the way forward in Iraq and ways to back the struggling Iraqi government. The strategy session was planned before Zarqawi’s death, but the terrorist’s demise is likely now to be a major part of the agenda.

Recent history provides conflicting evidence on whether the loss of a charismatic figure such as the Jordanian-born Zarqawi can prove a crippling blow to a violent insurgency movement.

Peru’s Shining Path, a vicious Maoist movement, was at the height of its power in the early 1990s, controlling much of the country’s south and able to strike near the capital of Lima. But the movement collapsed after a police raid in September 1992 captured Abimael Guzman, the movement’s guiding intellectual and military leader.

But many violent Islamist movements have shown an ability to adapt and thrive after the loss of a leader.

Chechen rebels have carried on a resistance struggle against Russian government forces despite the killing last year of the movement’s unofficial president, Aslan Maskhadov. Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance played a critical role in the U.S.-led campaign that ousted the Taliban regime, despite the September 2001 assassination of its longtime leader, Ahmed Shah Masood, believed to have been ordered by al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden himself.

And Israel’s long campaign of targeted assassinations of Palestinian militant leaders has hampered but not crushed anti-Israeli terrorist movements.

Indeed, some operations to remove top terrorist figures have backfired.

Daniel Bynam, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Services, noted in an analysis last week that the 1992 Israeli assassination of Abbas al-Musawi, secretary-general of Lebanon’s Islamist Hezbollah movement, only cleared the way for the far more capable Hassan Nasrallah to take the reins.

Islamist Web sites used by Iraqi insurgents predictably dismissed ideas that the death of Zarqawi meant the death of the insurgency.

The “Sada al-Jihad” online newsletter, which analysts say is close to the al Qaeda leadership, predicted Friday that “the martyrdom of our prince will only enrage the flames against the enemies of Allah.”

“It is true that a lion was martyred, but Bush must know that a thousand Zarqawis will appear,” the newsletter warned.

Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, identified as the “deputy emir” of Zarqawi’s brutal Al Qaeda in Iraq organization, said in a posting after the strike, “The death of our leaders is life for us. It will only increase our persistence in continuing holy war so that the word of God will be supreme.”

Complicating the picture is Zarqawi’s ambiguous relationship with other, more numerous forces within the cluster of groups that make up Iraq’s insurgency. Many rebel groups, notably Iraqi Sunni radicals and ex-Ba’athists still loyal to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, were increasingly uneasy with both Zarqawi’s politics and his indiscriminate methods.

Zarqawi won global notoriety for the sheer brutality of his attacks: videotaped beheadings of hostages such as the American Nicholas Berg; a suicide bombing that targeted a wedding party at a hotel in his native Jordan; and a willingness to attack Shi’ite holy sites and senior clerics, who the fundamentalist Sunni Zarqawi hated at least as much as the foreign forces in Iraq.

There was mounting evidence that such tactics had begun to turn off Zarqawi’s allies in the insurgency, who complained the attacks on civilians and his extreme anti-Shi’ite stance were undermining support for the resistance.

Zarqawi represented “the most extreme element of the terrorist wing of the insurgency,” according to Jeffrey White, a former government intelligence analyst now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Zarqawi may have been broadly useful to the insurgents, but he was probably loved by only a few,” he added.

Some specialists have even detected increasing strains between Zarqawi and top al Qaeda leaders such as bin Laden and deputy Ayman al-Zawahri. Bin Laden endorsed the Jordanian as the “prince of al Qaeda in Iraq” in late 2004, but only after a long and strained relationship between the two dating back to their days together in the resistance to Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Zarqawi’s brutality “tended to give the entire idea of jihad [Muslim holy war] a bad name,” according to Michael Radu, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who said that despite Zarqawi’s formal alliance with bin Laden, he was largely an “autonomous operator” inside Iraq.

But Mr. Radu added that Zarqawi provided al Qaeda with a platform and a recruiting symbol that the terrorist network had lost after the ouster of its patron Taliban regime in Afghanistan in early 2002.

According to Mr. Cordesman, “There is no other figure in the insurgency that has captured Iraq and the world’s attention. Most other leaders are nearly faceless and unknown. At the same time, Zarqawi’s extremism has sometimes been a liability,” he said.

Mr. Radu was one of a number of terrorism specialists who agreed with the thrust of Mr. Bush’s comments Friday that the death of Zarqawi in the short term was a bigger blow to al Qaeda than it was to the insurgency inside Iraq. As Mr. Bush noted, Zarqawi’s agenda included exporting the violence in Iraq across the Middle East and igniting a sectarian clash of Sunnis and Shi’ites — two goals that many more nationalistic Iraqi insurgent groups did not share.

The Zarqawi-run al Qaeda network in Iraq “has likely been decisively, if not terminally, weakened with its founder’s death coming at a time when foreign jihadists were increasingly at odds — often violently — with local groups,” Mr. Radu said.

Brookings Institution analyst Ivo Daalder said the sectarian conflict Zarqawi hoped to ignite is already well under way in Iraq, and he predicted that the terrorist’s death “is no more likely to be a turning point in Iraq than was Saddam Hussein’s capture in December 2003.”

Saddam’s capture, while offering a morale boost to coalition forces in Iraq, failed to significantly reduce the level of insurgent violence.

“Much of the killing in Iraq today isn’t the result of Zarqawi’s men, but of Sunni and Shi’ite militias engaged in a big fight for neighborhoods, towns, cities and the resources they control,” Mr. Daalder said.

London-based Arab-language Al-Hayat newspaper, which has strong sources inside the Iraqi insurgent movement, said some of the resistance fighters are arguing that Zarqawi’s death will help their cause. His death clears the way for alliances between Shi’ite and Sunni groups fighting the U.S.-led military coalition, and puts the focus of the fighting squarely inside Iraq.

Many insurgent leaders told the paper that Zarqawi was in large part a creation of the Bush administration, which first singled him out as a key terror link between al Qaeda and Saddam in Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s February 2003 presentation to the U.N. Security Council seeking backing for the Iraq war.

It was in the coalition’s interest to play up Zarqawi — a foreigner in Iraq with a willingness to kill civilians — as a way to undermine the insurgency as a whole, they said.

Al-Hayat reported that the Iraqi factions have vowed “to intensify their operations during the coming phase against American forces, as a way of demonstrating” the relatively minor role Zarqawi and al Qaeda played in the war.

It is for just that reason, argued CSIS’ Mr. Cordesman, that the United States and the Iraqi government under Mr. al-Maliki must move quickly to follow up on the public relations coup that comes with Zarqawi’s death.

Whatever Zarqawi’s standing in the multiheaded Iraqi resistance, his death forces the insurgents to take time to designate a new leader and for that leader to consolidate his authority.

Who that successor will be is still a subject of speculation. While some Iraqi reports suggested the role could fall on al-Iraqi, Zarqawi’s chosen heir, the U.S. military named an Egyptian, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who has a $50,000 bounty on his head.

“Much of whether Zarqawi’s death has lasting impact, or has the same temporary impact as Saddam’s capture and the death of his sons, depends on the Iraq government,” said Mr. Cordesman in a new analysis.

Almost unnoticed in the attention given to Zarqawi’s killing was the news last week that Mr. al-Maliki finally had broken a major impasse in his unity government by filling the key posts of defense and interior ministers.

Mr. Cordesman said the government’s to-do list includes dealing with the problem of militias in the security forces; re-establishing security and control of Baghdad; and making new overtures to moderate Sunni groups.

U.S. military leaders clearly have tried to capitalize on the momentum provided by Zarqawi’s death, staging dozens of high-profile raids in and around Baghdad in the past several days. They said many of the raids exploited a “treasure trove” of intelligence gathered after the Zarqawi strike.

And the killing of Iraq’s most notorious terrorist has provided a clear morale boost to Mr. Bush and Mr. al-Maliki, both of whom faced mounting political problems over the course of the war in recent weeks.

While Mr. Bush and other U.S. officials sounded a sober note, Mr. al-Maliki was less restrained.

Talking to reporters in Baghdad on Friday, the prime minister said, “Whenever there is a new Zarqawi, we will kill him, too.”

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