The US military is training its guns now on one of the most intractable challenges to January elections in Iraq: the city of Fallujah.
The Sunni city is seen as a base of operations for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant accused by US officials of terrorist plots in at least four countries and of ties to Al Qaeda. Mr. Zarqawi's Iraq-based group, Tawhid and Jihad, claims responsibility for beheading hostages, kidnappings - including two Americans and a Briton last week - attacks on churches, and the bombings of Iraqi police stations that have left more than 400 people dead.
US bombs rain down almost daily on Fallujah, targeting alleged Zarqawi associates and killing roughly 70 people this month. But some terrorism analysts, and old associates who spent time with Zarqawi in a Jordan prison, say he runs an organization separate from Al Qaeda. They say that killing the poorly educated, tattooed Jordanian - or many of his followers - will do little to slow the wave of terrorist attacks inside Iraq.
"Just like with Osama, if you were to kill him today, it wouldn't make a difference at all to these networks he's helped create,'' says Rohan Gunaratna, a counterterrorism expert and author of "Inside Al Qaeda." "While much of the suicide bombing in Iraq is coordinated by his network, it's being driven from the bottom up. Regional and local operational leaders plan and execute attacks. Zarqawi probably doesn't know much about them ahead of time and he doesn't need to."
This doesn't mean the shadowy Zarqawi isn't an important contributor to Iraq's instability. But analysts such as Mr. Gunaratna say that his importance lies in having used contacts developed while living in Afghanistan between 1999 and 2002 to stitch together a loose network of likeminded militants stretching from Iraq north through Turkey and into Europe. Zarqawi is just the most visible figure today in a tight-knit group of operatives, many with guerrilla and terrorist training gained in Afghanistan.
If this analysis is correct, the damage is already done. While Zarqawi may be captured or killed, his network is now largely autonomous, with scores of plug-and-play operatives inside Iraq. In fact, many analysts worry that the bombing of Fallujah is strengthening his network. Publicity around civilian casualties, they say, brings more Iraqis and foreigners to the cause.
The US has "killed some important individuals but the power of the network is such that they're able to replace them. They're living in a war zone where the generation of new members is easy,'' says Gunaratna, because of the conviction of many that they're fighting an infidel invader. "Iraq has clearly become the new land of jihad, like Afghanistan produced the last generation of Mujahidin, Iraq is creating the new generation."
The story of how Zarqawi, once a small-time thug jailed for sexual assault in his hometown in Jordan, rose to be one of the most important figureheads in the global militant Islamist movement, is filled with gaps and contradictions.
Described as poorly educated by cellmates who served time with him in Jordan in the 1990s, the US says he's the author of a 14-page letter intercepted in early 2004 that lays out the blueprint for his jihad inside Iraq, replete with historic allusions and poetic language that people who know him doubt he's capable of writing.
"When I knew Zarqawi, there's no way he could have ever written a letter like that,'' says Abdullah Abu Roman, a Jordanian journalist who's writing a book about Zarqawi and who served time with the militant in 1996, when Mr. Roman was jailed for lèse-majesté. "He was a hard man, completely uncompromising. He had the ability to be a leader in a small jail in the south of Jordan, but I'm surprised that he's now said to be so important."
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, top US officials such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell cited Zarqawi as a full-fledged member of Al Qaeda, who they claimed had been injured in a post-9/11 US airstrike in Afghanistan and later had a leg amputated in a Baghdad hospital. That treatment, they said, bolstered claims of close ties between Al Qaeda and the regime of Saddam Hussein.
But analysts - as well as German and Italian government court documents in cases against Zarqawi associates - say it's clear now that while Zarqawi has had contact with Al Qaeda members in the past, he has sharp tactical differences with the organization and appears to be operating a wholly separate network. Shadi Abdallah, a Zarqawi associate arrested on charges of running a terrorist cell in Germany, has told interrogators that Zarqawi saw himself as a rival of Al Qaeda, not an ally.US officials now say they don't believe he lost a leg, and analysts such as Gunaratna say there is no evidence he had ties to Hussein's regime.
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.
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."
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.