A death, and a flicker of hope in Iraq
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death is an important development in the history of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, and it proves the old adage, "Those who live by the sword must die by the sword."
The immediate question is how the death of the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq at the hands of US security forces will affect the insurgency in the country. There is understandably and justifiably a considerable amount of euphoria in Iraq and in Washington over this news. But don't expect the development to have any lasting effect on the insurgency. If the past has any pattern, the insurgency is likely to pick up its pace after a short respite. In the final analysis, the real reason for the insurgency is the continued presence of US forces in Iraq.
Initial reports suggest that the US success in killing Zarqawi was the result of information that his cohorts provided to the Iraqi and US authorities. (There was, after all, a US$25 million reward on his head.) That is how the careers and lives of terrorists and dictators come to an end. It will be recalled that the capture of Saddam was also possible because of a tip-off by an insider.
Even though persons of his ilk are expected to die a violent death, it should be asked what factors are responsible for bringing about his "termination", as Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki described it. Three important reasons become obvious for some of his followers to have turned against him. Some reports indicate one of these might even have been his spiritual adviser, Sheikh Abd al-Rahman.
The first reason appears to be Zarqawi's decision to intensify the sectarian war between Shi'ites and Sunnis, as he envisaged this as the best way to create the maximum amount of mayhem in Iraq. But the worsening situation itself created a new urgency about eliminating him.
The second reason that he died at this point is his decision to "Talibanize" Iraq. Talibanization was the process - as was done under Taliban rule in Afghanistan - whereby Zarqawi's followers started to implement harsh sharia laws in Sunni areas, thereby making the already harsh lives of the citizens even more miserable. The enforcement of his laws on Iraqi women was especially hard to take, since women in Iraq had enjoyed relative freedom even within the constraints of Saddam's rule.
Iraq is not Afghanistan. Talibanization was not about to work. The level of education and exposure of Iraqis to Western cultural practices have been considerably larger in scope and longevity than those of the Afghans. So any notion that the Iraqis would learn to live with harsh religious laws - which they never had to do before - was totally unrealistic.
The third important reason for his death might have been the fact that, in spearheading the Islamist part of the insurgency, Zarqawi had become the face of that insurgency. The US information operation, by over-emphasizing his importance, might have created a mega-version of ego in the mind of Zarqawi.
In that capacity, in the last few weeks of his life, he initiated a high-profile campaign publicizing himself. That strategy might have created enormous of jealousy within the ranks of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Alternatively, someone in his organization decided that he had become more important than the jihad he was promoting.
The chief strength of Zarqawi for his movement was that he eventually emerged as a superb propagandist for all wanna-be jihadis. His postings of beheading of hostages on the Internet - even though they demonstrated his grotesque penchant for brutality - also proved an effective way of bringing in new recruits.
The chief weakness of Zarqawi was that he never knew how far he could push the Iraqis to fight the sectarian war, and how much they were capable of observing his version of strict Islamic laws.
During his last days he had expanded the scope of conflict more than Shi'ite militants did. In this sense, it will be interesting in the coming days to see who will replace him, and how effective the next leader of al-Qaeda of Iraq will be as a propagandist. It is also worth watching whether Zarqawi's successor will continue the sectarian war with the same intensity, or whether he will heed the advice given by al-Qaeda's No 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the Iraqi insurgents to remain focused on extricating the US forces from Iraq and not fomenting sectarian war.
Personalities have been important in the context of Middle Eastern politics. Thus one has to watch carefully the public personality as well as the modus operandi of the next corps of leadership of al-Qaeda of Iraq.
What is the meaning of Zarqawi's death regarding the insurgency in Iraq and regarding global jihad? At least in Washington, there are hopes that it will deal both movements a severe blow.
US President George W Bush made a point of manifesting public restraint to the news of the death of Zarqawi. However, there is little doubt that, for an administration that has been so desperate for some good news from Iraq, the development could not have come at a better time.
However, if the past has any pattern for the future, the end of Zarqawi might only slow the pace of the insurgency for a short time. The chief reason underlying the insurgency is the continued presence of US forces in Iraq. Zarqawi became the most visible symptom; but he never was the chief force underlying the insurgency.
If the next leader of al-Qaeda of Iraq were to share the jihadi strategy preferred by Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri, he would concentrate on targeting the Americans and Iraqi officials and refrain from further intensifying the sectarian war.
At a moment of potential major change in Iraq, it is important to ask how the insurgency can be stopped. Every time one person or a group of persons are given extraordinary significance for the effectiveness or longevity of any movement, one can overstate the opportunities when that person passes on. In that sense, there is ample temptation to think that the Iraqi insurgency might be stopped because Zarqawi is dead.
The factor that will be most potent in terms of helping Iraq fight its insurgency is if the national-unity government becomes an effective entity by reducing food, electricity and gasoline shortages, and by bringing back "normalcy" to Iraq.
Given the concentration on Zarqawi's death, some important news did not receive much publicity. On Thursday, the Iraqi parliament approved Jawad al-Bulani, a Shi'ite and a former army colonel under Saddam, as interior minister. General Abd al-Qadir Jasim, a Sunni, was approved as defense minister. Jasim was until now commander of Iraq's ground forces. Agreement has also been reached for Shirwan al-Waili to become the new minister for national security. These influential positions had been unfilled for some time because of political wrangling.
Now the national-unity government is complete and it must start the serious and tedious business of governance. The fact that Sunnis are now part of the government is a major development. However, their participation has to result in an improvement of living conditions for all Iraqis. Otherwise, the insurgency cannot be broken.
Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected] His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.
Dr. Ehsan Ahrari is WSN Editor U.S.A. and member of the WSN International Advisory Board.