A death, and a flicker of hope in
Iraq By Ehsan Ahrari
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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