- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

The killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi, combined with the selection of a defense minister who has credibility with the Sunnis, has provided the best chance in months for progress against the insurgency, Iraqi officials said yesterday.

But the sectarian killings in Baghdad and southern Iraq are unlikely to end anytime soon, they added.

“This is an important victory over the foreign insurgents,” said Falah al-Naqib, a Sunni member of the Iraqi parliament’s national security committee. He warned that Zarqawi’s followers would likely increase their attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces in the next couple of weeks to prove that they are still a force to be contended with.

“But in the end, I think they will be weakened,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Baghdad.

The twin announcements of Zarqawi’s death and the filling of security posts lifted the hopes of Baghdad residents after months of discouraging news.

“Everybody is hoping that something has changed. Maybe there will be car bombs, but not like before. Maybe now something will change, and there will be more quiet. Those people killing others for wearing shorts, they were part of Zarqawi,” said Ahmed, a young father of two who is from a mixed Shi’ite-Sunni family.

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, coalition forces spokesman, said the elimination of Zarqawi was a major setback for al Qaeda in Iraq, but it did not mean the group was going to disappear altogether. He predicted that Egyptian-born Abu al-Masri would replace Zarqawi.

“He’s the most logical one out there,” Gen. Caldwell said at a Baghdad press conference, adding that Zarqawi had “likely predicted his capture for some time” and prepared someone to take his place.

The appointment of Gen. Abdul-Qader Mohammed Jassim al-Mifarji, a Sunni Arab and former Ba’athist, to the post of defense minister could be key in winning over the other faction of Iraq’s insurgency — the national Sunni resistance that is backed by many of Saddam Hussein’s former soldiers.

While not all supported Saddam, former army members have virulently opposed the American military presence in Iraq since being pushed aside in favor of a new Iraqi army. A key demand of the resistance has been that the former army be brought back into the military.

“I think he will bring back some of the old army,” said Shi’ite parliament member Ali al-Debagh. “I think because he is an ex-Ba’athist, he definitely understands that he could use those to break the insurgency and to give the insurgents some power and a means to let them back in.

“He was brought in to do such a job; we hope that it is a positive step,” said Mr. al-Debagh, speaking from Baghdad.

Gen. al-Mifarji graduated from the Iraqi military academy in 1969, but was thrown out of the military and Saddam’s Ba’ath party in 1991 after he criticized the invasion of Kuwait and served seven years in jail for his comments, the Associated Press reported yesterday. He joined the new Iraqi army after Saddam’s fall, and was commander of military operations in the insurgent stronghold of western Iraq.

“He is quite respected,” said one former Sunni officer who recently was forced to flee Iraq for Dubai after repeated death threats. “He will bring in former officers from Ramadi and Mosul. This is good because the leaders of the Iraqi resistance — not Zarqawi’s group — are former officers.”

The former officer, speaking on the telephone from Dubai on the condition of anonymity, said that much depended on how much support Gen. al-Mifarji would get from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The killing of Zarqawi and the appointment of the new minister, said Mr. al-Debagh, was “a combined carrot-and-stick approach. On one hand, you have the peaceful solution, and on the other hand, you have the law and power.”

The former officer said Jordanian-born Zarqawi had moved to Diyala province north of Baghdad because he had a falling out with the nationalist insurgents in Ramadi — the capital of the insurgent stronghold of Anbar province — over the brutality of his two-year-long campaign and his indiscriminate bombings and killing of Iraqis.

Mr. al-Naqib, the national security committee member, said the larger problem facing Iraq was the Shi’ite militias and gangs that are terrorizing the population, either through the Shi’ite-on-Shi’ite killings in southern Iraq or in the daily Shi’ite-Sunni kidnappings and executions elsewhere around the country.

“The problem in Iraq is not Zarqawi — it is the militias and the gangsters. Having Zarqawi killed does not mean it will solve the problems in Basra or in Amarah,” Mr. al-Naqib said.

Fakhri al-Khaisy, a fundamental Sunni Salafi spokesman in Baghdad who said he had never supported Zarqawi, said yesterday that the al Qaeda terrorist leader represented only 5 percent to 10 percent of all the groups fighting each other in Iraq. The rest was sectarian violence that was likely to continue.

Mr. al-Khaisy said his son was kidnapped Monday by Shi’ite Mahdi Army militia members who were demanding that he act as a mediator in the release of some Mahdi members being held by Zarqawi supporters.

“Yesterday, they broke his legs and hands and put him on the phone. This is the disaster and tragedy of Iraq,” he said.

Even the appointment of the Shi’ite former engineer Jawad al-Bolani to lead the Interior Ministry would not solve the Sunni-Shi’ite slaughter, said Mr. al-Khaisy. “I don’t think it helps. Iraq is now a land for fighting between all groups, especially sectarian.”

Also, Sherwan al-Waili was appointed minister of national security.

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