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Going after Iraq's most wanted man

US airstrikes in Fallujah are targeting Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his followers. Is he the mastermind of the insurgency?

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While he was operating inside Iraq prior to the invasion, US officials say most of his activities were in the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, where he mingled with members of Ansar al-Islam, a radical Kurdish group who operated in an area beyond Baghdad's control and was largely scattered by US airpower at the start of the war.

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Not Zarqawi's voice

And though a number of recorded statements attributed to him are on the Internet, claiming responsibility for attacks inside Iraq and threatening more against the US, Jordanians who knew him say the voice on the tapes isn't the one they remember. "I met with him 15 times, and I tell you that the voice on those tapes isn't his. His voice is gravelly, distinct,'' says Mohammed al-Dweik, a lawyer for Zarqawi in Jordan.

Zarqawi, believed to be 38, was born Ahmad Fadil al- Khalayleh in the poor Jordanian industrial city of Zarqa, where crime is as rife as militant Islamist sentiment, a legacy of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict next door.

Though Zarqawi's parents were of the Bedouin stock native to the area, the town was home to the first Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, founded in 1949, and Zarqa's masses of idle young Palestinian men has made it fertile ground for radical preachers. Mr. Powell told the UN at the start of 2003 that Zarqawi was a Palestinian, but US officials now acknowledge that was an error.

During a restless youth filled with brawling and drinking, as well as covering his forearms with Bedouin tribal tattoos, Zarqawi grew to be obsessed with the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, and went there in the late 1980s as a sort of jihad tourist, when the war was nearly over.

He worked for an intermittently published jihad magazine, profiling the heroes of the war against the Russians, and received some military training in camps tied to what was becoming Al Qaeda. By 1992, he drifted back home, apparently with the idea of forming a militant group to overthrow Jordan's monarchy, which he saw as a traitor to Islam for making peace with Israel.

Later that year, he and a number of his associates were jailed by Jordan for Islamist activity and on weapons charges, and while there Zarqawi went through another stage of his intellectual development. When he wasn't working out with improvised weights, he cocooned himself by tying blankets around his bottom bunk and relentlessly studying the Koran in what cellmates say was a failed attempt to memorize Islam's holy book.

"Let's say he had less than average smarts, but he was a combination of being very bold and tough, while also affectionate to his close friends,'' says Yousef Radaba, who was jailed with Zarqawi and belonged to a rival Islamist group in the prison.

Mr. Radaba says Zarqawi emerged as the enforcer and chief doer for a hard-core group of Islamists inside the prison, so exclusivist in their outlook that they dismissed even others jailed for their devotion to armed struggle as "infidels" when they differed over doctrine. Their ideological leader was Abu Mohammed al-Maqdassi, a preacher who remains jailed in Jordan for his radical views.

"For him and his group, society is divided into two groups: Muslims and infidels. Anyone who disagreed with him was an infidel," says Radaba. For instance, Radaba remembers arguing with Zarqawi over the correct interpretation of Al-Anfal, or The Spoils, a verse in the Koran that militants see is a call to violent jihad.

"I used to say to him that it meant we should fight the fighters, occupiers, and oppressors, not just anyone affiliated with them. So fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan was good, but killing civilians was unacceptable,'' recalls Radaba. "But he said we should just kill anyone affiliated with Islam's enemies. He was simple in this way - he didn't want a deeper understanding."

Ambition to be a fruit vender

As the year's wore on, Radaba says Zarqawi emerged as a leader and a man of contradictions, sometimes gentle and supportive of his followers, at other times incredibly cruel. "He stood up for their rights with the guards - and drew a lot of tough guys, drinkers, rapists, killers, into his circle, who saw him as upstanding and someone to emulate,'' says Roman, the journalist.

But he also recalls that he forbade his followers from reading anything but the Koran and the traditions of Muhammad's life, once beating a rival Islamist for reading a book of poetry.

In 1998, Zarqawi and dozens of other Islamists were released as part of a royal amnesty. After failing to find work that year in Jordan (at one time he told friends he wanted to open a small fruit-stand), he returned to Afghanistan, where European court documents allege he founded a training camp for his group, Tawhid and Jihad (which roughly means "Oneness of God and Holy War.")

After the US invasion of Afghanistan, he fled to northern Iraq, where he began putting his Iraq network together with the help of Ansar al-Islam. The first suicide attack in Iraq attributed to him occurred in August last year, against the Jordanian Embassy.