It was the end of a strange career. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a little known Jordanian petty criminal turned Islamic fundamentalist fanatic until he was denounced by the US in 2003 as an insurgent leader of great importance. This enabled him to recruit men and raise money to fight a cruel war, waged mostly against Iraqi civilians. His death is important in Iraq because he was the most openly sectarian of the Sunni resistance leaders, butchering Shia as heretics deemed as worthy of death as any foreign invader. His chosen instrument was the suicide bomber, usually recruited from outside the country. Their targets were almost invariably Shia young men desperate for work, lining up for jobs as policemen or soldiers. Few of the 20,000 US soldiers killed and wounded in Iraq in the last three years have died at the hands of al-Zarqawi’s men according to the US military.
President Bush and Tony Blair cautiously welcomed the news of the death of the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. But paradoxically, among those most pleased by his elimination may be the other insurgent leaders. ‘He was an embarrassment to the resistance itself,” said Ghassan al-Attiyah, an Iraqi commentator. “They never liked him taking all the limelight and the Americans exaggerated his role.”
Al-Zarqawi owed his rise to the US in two different ways: his name was unknown when he was suddenly denounced on February 5, 2003 by Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, before the UN Security Council as the link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. There turned out to be no evidence for this connection and al-Zarqawi did not at this time belong to al Qaeda. But across the Muslim world Powell’s denunciation made him a symbol of resistance to the US. It also fitted in with Washington’s political agenda that attacking Iraq was part of the war on terror.
The invasion gave al-Zarqawi a further boost. Within months of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein the whole five-million strong Sunni Arab community in Iraq opposed the occupation. Cheering crowds gathered every time a US soldier was shot or an American vehicle blown up. Armed resistance was popular and for the first time Sunni militants known as the Salafi, religious fundamentalists demonstrating their faith by religious war or Jihad, had a bed rock of support in Iraq. Osama bin Laden and the original al Qaeda had never had this degree of acceptance in Afghanistan and were forced to hire local tribesmen to take part in their propaganda videos.
The next critical moment in al-Zarqawi’s career was the capture of Saddam Hussein on December 15, 2003. Previously US military and civilian Spokesmen had blamed everything on the former Iraqi leader. The mounting insurgency was blamed on remnants of his regime. His brutal rule of Iraq made him easy to demonize at home and abroad. No sooner had Saddam Hussein been captured than the US spokesmen began to mention al-Zarqawi’s name in every sentence. “If the weather is bad they will blame it on Zarqawi,” an Iraqi journalist once said to me as we sat through one American briefing. It emerged earlier this year that the US emphasis on al-Zarqawi as the prime leader of the Iraqi resistance was part of a carefully calculated propaganda program. A letter supposedly from al-Zarqawi was conveniently discovered. One internal briefing document quoted by the Washington Post records Brigadier General Kimmitt, the chief US military spokesman at the time, as saying: “The Zarqawi PSYOP program is the most successful information campaign to date.”
The US Zarqawi campaign was largely aimed at the American public and above all the American voter. It was intent on hammering in the message that the invasion of Iraq was a reasonable response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. This meant it was necessary to show that al Qaeda was strong in Iraq and play down the fact that this had only happened after the invasion.
In an increasingly anti-American Arab world hostility from the US made it easy for al-Zarqawi develop his own organization and finance it. The siege of Fallujah in April 2004 and the storming of the city by US Marines in November the same year saw al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad), whose name was later changed to al Qaeda’s Organization in Iraq, become a powerful force. The suicide bombing campaign had already begun in November 2003 and was from the start directed against Shia as much as foreign troops or officials.
Al-Zarqawi’s war was devised to have the maximum political impact. There was the beheading of foreign captives shown on videos and broadcast via the internet. For all his professed wish to return to a pure seventh-century Muslim state al-Zarqawi was adept at using the internet for propaganda and recruitment. Journalists, Iraqi and foreign, were treated as enemies to be killed where possible.
He was an enemy to America’s liking. Though US military officials in Baghdad openly admitted that few insurgents were non-Iraqi al-Zarqawi’s Jordanian origins were useful in suggesting that the insurrection was orchestrated from outside Iraq. Unfortunately the US commanders believed much of their own propaganda and treated the insurrection as if it was the work of a few cell leaders. Once they were eliminated, they proclaimed, the resistance would collapse. The general unpopularity of the occupation , demonstrated by the repeated defection of police and army units, was disregarded.
There were always going to be sectarian and ethnic differences between Shia, Sunni and Kurd after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. This would have given a constituency to al-Zarqawi whatever happened but he also did much to deepen sectarian hatred by killing Iraqi Shia whenever he could. This destabilized the Iraqi government and it also meant that his anti-Shia fanaticism was increasing acceptable, as the Shia retaliated in 2005, in the Sunni community. Meanwhile the American promotion of him as predominant leader of the insurgency did him nothing but good.
The death of al-Zarqawi may lessen Shia-Sunni sectarianism but most likely it comes too late. Diyala, the province where he was killed, is already seeing a savage civil war in which Iraq’s communities hunt each other down and whoever is in the minority is forced to run, fight or die.