For the last few days, the Western media has exulted in the news of the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Over the past two years, Zarqawi had become the leading symbol of the struggle in Iraq, in the eyes of both the Americans and millions of his Muslim admirers. He was the acknowledged leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and thus one of the most wanted men in the world with US offering a $25 million reward for his arrest.
Al-Zarqawi was killed in a well-planned attack on Wednesday, June 7 near the Iraqi town of Baquba. US F-16 aircraft dropped two 500lb (230kg) bombs on Zarqawi's safe house. The militant leader was reportedly holding a meeting with associates, including spiritual adviser Sheikh Abd-al-Rahman. US Major General William Caldwell said that Al-Zarqawi survived the initial attack but died of his wounds shortly afterwards. Five others, including a child, were killed in the attack.
Some analysts, have hailed his death as being “more significant than the assassination of Osama bin Laden would be”. In Israel, the Haaretz website has stated Al Zarqawi is responsible for the most casualties in recent years whereas Bin Laden's “liquidation” would have only moral significance.
Those hoping for a reduction in the violence in Iraq may be sadly mistaken. Zarqawi headed only one of several radical Sunni organisations, and his assassination will have no impact on the others. He is also likely to inspire others to join the movement as a result of his ‘martyrdom’. Zarqawi's status in Iraq may have been on the wane in recent times, due to his sectarian war against the Shi'ites.
Zarqawi was born in 1966 with the name Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalaylah. His nom de guerre is an amalgam of "Abu Musab" which means "Musab's father", while the surname "al-Zarqawi" translates as "man from Zarqa". And indeed, his place of birth was the Jordanian town of Zarqa. Situated north east of Amman, Zarqa is Jordan’s industrial heartland. More than 50% of its population are Palestinian refugees from the Israeli invasion of the West Bank. Zarqawi was born of a poverty-stricken native Jordanian family. He left school at 17 and was apparently jailed briefly in the eighties.
He travelled to Afghanistan to join the war against the Russian invasion. Back in 1979, the ruling pro-Soviet administration had invited the Russians into the country to assist in modernising its economic infrastructure. They also trained and equipped the Afghan army. This prompted a violent backlash and the government responded with a heavy handed military intervention and arrested, exiled and executed many mujahedin "holy Muslim warriors". Despite this the Afghan army was overwhelmed by the opposition and the Russians responded with a military invasion. For nine years the Soviet Army conducted military operations against the mujahedin rebels which were supported by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the CIA. Zarqawi came to the country at the end, when Soviet troops withdrew under the Geneva accords between Afghanistan and Pakistan reached in 1988.
Though Zarqawi arrived too late to see action, he did establish contact with and befriend Osama Bin Laden. Though his Saudi and CIA contacts, Bin Laden had established an organization named Maktab al-Khadamat (“Office of Order”), which funnelled money, arms and Muslim fighters from around the world into the war. Zarqawi took up work as a journalist for an Islamic newsletter. He returned to Jordan where he was arrested again in 1992. He spent seven years in prison for conspiring to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy. He was released in 1999 and was involved in an attempt to blow up the Radisson SAS Hotel in the capital Amman. He evaded capture and after an unknown period in Europe, he fled to Taliban controlled Afghanistan where he established a military camp. Jordan tried him in absentia and sentenced him to death for allegedly plotting attacks on American and Israeli tourists.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that he lost a leg in a missile attack on his base when the Americans attacked Afghanistan in October 2001. Zarqawi survived and moved on again, this time to Iraq. In October 2002, Zarqawi was linked with the assassination of US diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman. Meanwhile the US was building its case to invade Iraq. Then US State Secretary Colin Powell made a speech to the UN Security Council where he explicitly linked Iraq to Zarqawi. Powell said “Iraq today harbours a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, an associated collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants.” Powell went on to state Zarqawi was developing the poisonous gas ricin and he showed pictures of his training camp. This tenuous Iraq/Al Qaeda link was as important as the supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction in America’s rationale for the war on Iraq. But just like the WMDs, this claim was false. The CIA admitted there was no conclusive evidence the Saddam regime had harboured Zarqawi. However King Abdullah of Jordan said in May 2005 that Saddam had rejected repeated requests from Jordan to hand over Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
In 2004 Zarqawi was also rumoured to be the executioner of American businessman Nicholas Berg. A Malaysian hosted website of a militant group Muntada Al Ansar showed a videotape titled "Abu Musab al-Zarqawi shown slaughtering an American". The five minute video showed the beheading of Berg. Zarqawi is believed by many to be the executioner. Subsequently Zarqawi’s profile became increasingly high. He was alleged to have co-ordinated and fought in the second battle of Fallujah in November 2004 and masterminded the 2005 Amman hotel bombings that claimed 70 lives.
In April 2006 another video surfaced. This time it shows a man saying that holy warriors are fighting on despite a three-year "crusade." The recording shows someone bearing a strong resemblance to previous pictures of Zarqawi addressing a group of masked men. The US Army aired another tape of Zarqawi in May 2006. This was bizarrely presented by “YouTube” as a Zarqawi ‘blooper’ as it showed he did not know how to fix a jam on his automatic rifle.
There is substantial evidence to suggest that the American administration attributes to Zarqawi a ubiquitous, virtually demonic role in the anarchy that is now Iraq. According to unnamed US military sources who spoke to the Daily Telegraph in 2004,"he was almost certainly behind some of the kidnappings. But if there is a main leader of the insurgency he would be an Iraqi. The insurgency, though, is not nearly so centralised to talk of a structured leadership."
Opinion about his death has been predictably mixed. President Bush has led the chorus of praise. He said Zarqawi's death was "a severe blow to Al-Qaeda," a victory in the war against terrorism and "an opportunity for Iraq's new government to turn the tide in this struggle." Tony Blair echoed Bush’s comments but admitted violence would continue. London Arab newspaper Asharq al Awsat predicted that Abu Musab Al Zarqawi was so depraved that nobody would turn him into a martyr. The ruling Palestinian party Hamas called him a” casualty of a crusade against Arabs and Muslims” and the ex-leader of Taliban Afghanistan Mullah Omar said he was "deeply sad over the martyrdom."
There is little doubt that Iraq’s future is better without a killer like Zarqawi. But the US needs to understand that it will never win the battle of hearts and minds in that country. The sooner the West pulls out of Iraq, the sooner the country has a chance of healing from its protracted tragedy.