The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, may be no more the war-ending event than was the capture of Saddam Hussein or the killing of his sons - two earlier American military victories much trumpeted at the time as turning points.
But the demise of the chief spokesman and promoter for sectarian strife in Iraq, in a precise US military operation Wednesday, nevertheless provides the Bush administration some much-needed good news in a conflict that in recent weeks had only seemed to be deteriorating. Just how the US might capitalize on what is both a tactical and psychological victory is sure to figure in discussions at Camp David Monday when President Bush meets with his national security team in a two-day session on Iraq.
What should stand out in those meetings, some experts say, is how the Zarqawi operation was made possible by information coming from Iraqi civilians around the safe house the Al Qaeda leader had recently occupied in Diyala province - and what that says about ordinary Iraqis' commitment to the new Iraq.
"We need to learn from this and find more ways to build up the Iraqi people's participation in the process of building their country," says Paul Hughes, an Army colonel who was assigned to the Iraq reconstruction effort in 2003.
"When [the] people are willing to take risks for their new country, then we will have turned a corner in this project," he recalls telling an Iraqi security official recently. "In that sense, this suggests a major step forward," says Colonel Hughes, who is now at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.
Other factors should put a lilt in the voices of the Camp David participants, including the announcement Thursday by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that he completed forming his government by filling the crucial defense and interior ministry slots. Mr. Maliki also named a minister of state for security affairs.
What that piece of the good-news puzzle highlights more than anything, some analysts say, is just how much the way forward depends increasingly on actions by the Iraqi government. The truth of that is underscored by the White House decision to follow up Monday's strategy session with a teleconference Tuesday with Maliki and members of his new government.
"So much depends now on a series of actions it is incumbent upon the Iraqi government to take, but those measures all require active US support," says Anthony Cordesman, a senior Iraq analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Building up that partnership is the most important step now."
The central question after Mr. Zarqawi's death is whether the new Iraqi government, with US support, will be able to take what Mr. Cordesman calls a "major political and propaganda victory" and exploit it. Steps that he says could give the event "lasting importance" include:
• Using Zarqawi's demise as an opening for more concrete overtures to the Sunni population, whom Zarqawi was trying to incite into waging war against the Shiite population.
• Redoubling efforts to clean up interior ministry and police forces.
• Initiating an Iraq investigation into alleged US military abuses against Iraqi civilians, with the goal of rebuilding trust between the two countries.
The major obstacle Cordesman sees is that the opportunity for some major advancement in the US project in Iraq comes just when the picture of what the US has done in Iraq so far is largely one of waste, lack of planning, and lost opportunities. He says a major stumbling block is that the US ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, needs to make the case for spending more money in Iraq when the US is moving in the opposite direction.
"He's got to press for more resources" - for more and better police training, for more renovation of the Iraqi oil industry, says Cordesman.
Still, the US has to remain cautious about what the demise of one insurgent leader means, with some experts warning that the death of such a polarizing figure as Zarqawi could be a boost to the insurgency.
"The irony is that in a perverse way this could be a positive for the broader insurgency, if they are able to develop a more cohesive strategy out of it," says Hughes.
Indeed, an important reminder for the US may be that the insurgency is not monolithic, and that Zarqawi - a Jordanian - commanded only what is believed to have been a small fraction of insurgent forces. "This may or may not be a crippling blow to that small part of the insurgency he commanded, Al Qaeda in Iraq. But I don't see it affecting the intercommunal violence," says Patrick Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency specialist in the Middle East.
Zarqawi had mastered the Internet and was adept at using it to further his cause, through regular videos. His most recent video, which may have actually assisted in pinpointing his whereabouts, included a call to all-out sectarian war.
Removing so charismatic and seemingly untouchable a figure will help the US in its efforts to win both Iraqi and generally Muslim "hearts and minds," some analysts say. But Mr. Lang says a crucial lesson to be learned is how something like taking out Zarqawi is part of a process, and not an end that produces immediate results.
"You build up a capacity to acquire information that is better and better, and eventually you get payoffs like this," he says. "It's not so much a question of building on one event, but building up the process that made it possible."