Major blow to Iraq insurgency
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, chief of Al Qaeda in Iraq, was killed in a US airstrike Wednesday.
In the most significant military event in Iraq since the capture of Saddam Hussein in late 2003, US aircraft dropped two 500-pound bombs, killing the man Osama bin Laden called Al Qaeda's "prince" in Iraq.Skip to next paragraph
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Many Iraqis Thursday welcomed the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, who is both an icon and the operational chief of the Sunni insurgency.
He has been the mastermind of dozens of suicide bombings, kidnappings, and other attacks that have ignited a vicious sectarian war between Iraq's majority Shiites and the Sunni minority.
"It's good news, because al-Zarqawi is the symbol of terrorism, and all the tragedies and sectarian fighting are because of him," says Ali al-Obeidi, a Baghdad pharmacist, whose shop was shaken by yet another bomb Thursday. "The free flow of Iraqi blood has started to stop, because Zarqawi is dead."
Zarqawi's network of followers - stretching across the Middle East and to Europe - has been dealt a major blow. "He had become more dangerous than Osama bin Laden ... because bin Laden prefers to hide in the safety and comfort of some cave in Afghanistan or Pakistan," says M. J. Gohel, a terrorism expert and head of the Asia-Pacific Foundation in London. "Zarqawi was risking his life on the battlefield. He was able to recruit personnel and raise funds throughout the world."
It is too soon to know precisely how Zarqawi's death will change Iraq's insurgency, experts say, but his influence on global jihad - Al Qaeda websites praised their martyr's rise to paradise - is likely to continue to inspire some militants, say experts.
US aircraft bombed a meeting of Zarqawi and several top aides - including Zarqawi's spiritual guide - at a safe house some 30 miles northeast of Baghdad. Video footage Thursday showed people pulling pieces of clothing from piles of rubble at a site surrounded by palm trees.
"Today Zarqawi has been terminated," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced to applause from Iraqi journalists. Cel- ebratory shooting erupted in some Baghdad neighborhoods. "Every time a Zarqawi appears, we will kill him. We will continue confronting whoever follows his path. It is an open war between us," said Mr. Maliki.
Zarqawi carried a $25 million price on his head, the same set by the US government for Mr. bin Laden. US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad on Thursday called Zarqawi the "godfather of sectarian killing in Iraq," and warned of "difficult days ahead" as militants seek revenge.
The death of the Jordanian-born Zarqawi will resonate far beyond Iraq's borders. "Al-Zarqawi has developed a major following right across the globe among jihadis - he has supporters in Asia, Africa, and Europe," says Mr. Gohel, the terrorism expert in London. "The litmus test is how much terrorist-related violence will die down in Iraq after his death," he adds, noting that violence in Iraq has many facets, including criminal and Baathist elements. Still, no apparent successor appears ready to fill Zarqawi's shoes.
"It would take someone else several years to develop the kind of profile that Zarqawi achieved in quite a short time," says Gohel. "It is very unlikely that any other figure can replace him, in terms of rallying militants to global jihad."
Analysts expect an insurgent backlash, but by nightfall Thursday it appeared to be a relatively typical day of carnage in the Iraqi capital: two bombs had left 15 people dead and 36 wounded.
"The violence will escalate, because Al-Zarqawi's ... jihadi mindset is [more radical] than other resistance groups," says Rahim Daoud, a nonmilitant Iraqi who believes in the extreme Sunni Salafi ideology shared by Al Qaeda. "But all the resistance agrees to work militarily against the occupation."
Mr. Daoud explains that Zarqawi did not believe he was killing innocent people in his attacks - which is forbidden in Islam - because his higher overarching purpose was to conduct jihad."Some [Shiite] militias in the government kill people with drills; why doesn't the government do anything about the killing of those 'innocents'?"
Iraq's fractious government took advantage of the news to announce nominees to head three key ministries - defense, interior, and national security. Parliament approved them quickly, in a move that Iraqis hope will enable Mr. Maliki's government to stem the insurgency.