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 Day 19

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Death of a Jailbird

Zarqawi’s End is Not a Famous Victory

by ROBERT FISK

So, it’s another "mission accomplished". The man immortalised by the Americans as the most dangerous terrorist since the last most dangerous terrorist, is killed–by the Americans. A Jordanian corner-boy who could not even lock and load a machine gun is blown up by the US Air Force–and Messrs Bush and Blair see fit to boast of his demise. To this have our leaders descended. And how short are our memories.

They seek him here, they seek him there.
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? Is he in hell?
That damned elusive Pimpernel?

Sir Percy Blakeney, of course, eluded the revolutionary French. But the Baroness Orczy–unlike Mr Bush–would scarcely have bothered with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian thug whose dubious allegiance to al-Qa’ida turned him in to another "Enemy Number One" for those who believe they are fighting the eternal "war on terror". For so short is our attention span–and Messrs Bush and Blair, of course, rely on this–we have already forgotten that our leaders’ only interest in Zarqawi before the illegal 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq was to propagate the lie that Osama bin Laden was in cahoots with Saddam Hussein.

Because Zarqawi met Bin Laden in 2002 and then took up residence in a squalid valley in northern Iraq–inside Kurdistan but well outside the control of both the Kurds and Saddam–Messrs Bush and Blair concocted the fable that this "proved" the essential link between the Beast of Baghdad and the international crimes against humanity of 11 September 2001. The date on which this fictitious alliance was proclaimed–since it is far more important, politically and historically, than the date of Zarqawi’s death–was February 5, 2003. The location of the lie was the United Nations Security Council and the man who uttered it was the then Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

What a sigh of relief there must have been in Washington that Zarqawi was dead and not captured. He might have told the truth.

Yesterday, with an inevitability born of the utterly false promise that the bloodbath in Iraq is yielding dividends, we were supposed to believe that the death of Zarqawi was a famous victory. The American press dusted off their favorite phrase: "terrorist mastermind". No one, I suspect, will be able to claim the $25m on his head–unless he was betrayed by his own hooded gunmen–but the American military, stained by the blood of Haditha, received a ritual pat on the back from the Commander-in-Chief. They had got their man, the instigator of civil war, the flame of sectarian hatred, the head chopper who supposedly murdered Nicholas Berg. Maybe he was all these things. Or maybe not. But it will bring the war no nearer to its end, not because of the inevitable Islamist rhetoric about the "thousand Zarqawis" who will take his place, but because individuals no longer control–if they ever did–the inferno of Iraq. Bin Laden’s death would not damage al-Qa’ida now that he–like a nuclear scientist who has built an atom bomb–has created it. Zarqawi’s demise–and only al-Qa’ida’s killers would have listened to him, not the ex-Iraqi army officers who run the real Iraqi insurgency–will not make an iota of difference to the slaughter in Mesopotamia.

Messrs Bush and Blair slyly admitted as much yesterday when they warned that the insurgency would continue. But this raised another question. Will the eventual departure of Bush and Blair provide an opportunity to end this hell/ disaster? Or have the results of their folly also taken on a life of their own, unstoppable by any political change in Washington or London? Already we forget the way in which the same American forces credited with Zarqawi’s death had proved only a few weeks ago that he was a bumbling incompetent. The Beast of Ramadi–or Fallujah or Baquba or wherever–had produced a videotape in which he fired a light machine gun while promising victory to Islam. Days later, the Americans showed the rough cuts of the same video–in which Zarqawi could be seen pleading for help from his comrades after a bullet jammed in the breech of the weapon.

In prison in Jordan, back in the days when he was a mafiosi rather than a mahdi, Zarqawi would drape blankets around his bed, curtains that would conceal him from his fellow prisoners, a cave–a Bin Laden cave–from which he would emerge to stroke or strike the men in his cell. Possessive of his wife, he left her with so little money that she had to go out to work in his native Zarqa. When his mother died, Zarqawi sent no condolences.

Like Bin Laden–the man of whom he was both beholden and intensely jealous–he had already transmogrified, undergone that essential transubstantiation of all violent men, from the personal to the immaterial, from the uncertainty of life to the certainty of death. Zarqawi’s videotape was an act of extreme vanity that may have led to his death and he may have made it, subconsciously, to be his last message.

That the intelligence services of King Abdullah of Jordan–descendant of the monarch whom Sir Winston Churchill plopped off to the Hashemite throne–might have located Zarqawi’s "safe house" in Baquba was a suitably ironic historical act. The man who believed in caliphates had struck at the kingdom–killing 60 innocents in three hotels–and the old colonial world had struck back.

A king’s anger will embrace a duke or two. Even an ex-jailbird. Which, in the end, is probably all that Zarqawi was.

ROBERT FISK is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s collection, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. Fisk’s new book is The Conquest of the Middle East.