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.
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."
Also noteworthy is the ease with which he can get his message out. While analysts speculate it takes weeks for Mr. bin Laden to transmit tapes or other messages to the outside world, Iraq's urban battleground makes logistics for terrorists much easier.
Zarqawi's tape was released less than a day before US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew into Baghdad for surprise visits designed to show support for Iraq's newly named Prime Minister Jawad al-Maliki. Mr. Maliki, a religious Shiite who fought hard for Islamic law provisions to be included in Iraq's Constitution, told Ms. Rice that his top priority is reducing ethnic and sectarian animosities.
But those old hatreds are precisely what Zarqawi and his followers have been trying to stoke, in the hopes of sparking a full-scale civil war that would destabilize Iraq for years to come and give him what he imagines is his best chance at eventual success.
In his video, the powerful and chipmunk-cheeked Zarqawi said the Iraqi government, "whether made up of the hated Shiites or the secular Zionist Kurds or the collaborators among the Sunnis, will be tools of the crusaders and a poison dagger in the heart of the Islamic nation."
Speculation that Zarqawi's role in the insurgency was weakening has grown since Jan. 15, when a statement posted on insurgent websites announced the formation of the Majilis Shura al-Mujahdin, or the Mujahidin Shura Council (MSC), as an umbrella for Sunni insurgent groups who share Al Qaeda's ideology and goal of turning Iraq into a state governed by Sunni religious law.
Subsequent statements named an Iraqi militant with the nom de guerre of Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi as the group's leader, which some took to mean that Zarqawi had lost stature.
But insurgent sources say the move was mostly to put an Iraqi face on the operations of the self-styled holy warriors, and to counter US claims that foreign fighters, not Iraqis, were leading much of the violence, particularly in the volatile Anbar Province. They say Zarqawi has all along been their most respected operational commander.
The new group also makes it harder for him to be painted as a meddling foreigner, while also giving more face and respect to his Iraqi comrades. Zarqawi's video begins with a full screen shot of the MSC logo, and a smaller version remains on screen for the whole tape.
"It seems pretty clear that he's still the boss,'' says Mr. Kohlmann. "When the MSC chose to highlight their leadership, guess who's the star? It's an indication that the MSC is a propaganda front."
Kohlmann argues the MSC, which has at least eight member organizations, is sort of like a jihadi NATO.
"When we've got a coalition operation, we go under the NATO flag, because it helps the smaller nations feel they belong, it creates a sense of equality, and that's what the MSC is for: It gives the Iraqi [fighters] the sense that they're in control of their own jihad."