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Zarqawi message: 'I'm still here'

Iraqis react negatively to video of terror leader, who was until now seen by many as fictional.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 27, 2006


After years of operating in Iraq as a shadowy force who was sometimes heard but never seen, the Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi stepped out of the shadows with a video released on the Internet Tuesday that showed him planning operations against US forces and walking freely about the desert of what was claimed to be Iraq's Anbar Province.

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Mr. Zarqawi, whom Iraqi officials blame for dozens of suicide attacks inside Iraq as well as terrorist attacks in his native Jordan, was even at this late date seen as a mythical figure by many Iraqis, a fiction designed to spread fear and put a face on the Sunni Arab insurgents who have spread so much terror here.

"Before, I thought there was no Zarqawi, he was just a fiction. But now I believe in him. He's really out there,'' says Thalib Jabbar, a businessman in Baghdad. "Zarqawi wants to show his power and frighten people. But in reality, he's the one who should be afraid. We want him dead."

That's a common sentiment among many ordinary Iraqis, one played on by Iraqi officials Wednesday who condemned Zarqawi as a foreigner trying to destroy their country. Their strong response highlights the risk such a video poses for Zarqawi: The effort to show his strength within the insurgency also puts a foreign face on the movement, leaving an opening for his opponents to appeal to national unity.

Yet experts say he remains hugely popular among hard-core insurgents particularly in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province - and point out that the video shows him as calm and in control, despite a massive US manhunt for him.

At its most basic level, analysts say the point of the slickly produced half-hour video was for Zarqawi to say "I'm still here,'' much like the audiotape released Sunday by Osama bin Laden. US military propaganda and some Iraqi sheikhs have claimed recently that many of Zarqawi's past admirers had turned on him, and that he was on the run.

Most Iraqis, particularly the Shiites and Kurds whom he reviles, view him with loathing. "This terrorist is bombing all of the Iraqis. He never discriminates between any people. Christians, Muslims, women, children,'' says Mohammed Jemaah, a 24-year-old policeman in Baghdad. "If he was a real man, he would fight like a man, show himself, and not use car bombs."

Zarqawi is shown in the video, claimed to have been made last Friday, strolling among dozens of masked followers, pouring over maps and tactics with masked insurgents said to be from the Anbar city of Ramadi, and in a Rambo-moment emptying round after round from a bulky large-caliber machine gun into the desert.

"He shows himself as healthy and able to walk around outside, surrounded by loyal legions of followers, which counters the rumors that he's afraid, he's running and hiding and has no friends left,'' says Evan Kohlmann, author of "Al-Qaida's Jihad in Europe" and a terrorism consultant. "There was a lot of speculation that he was out of the picture. And he needed to respond to that, to show that he's still there, still in charge, and there's nothing to stop him from putting together military operations."