An original aim of the US war in Iraq was to "take the fight to the enemy," or draw Al Qaeda into an Arab land and divert it from attempting more strikes on US soil. That goal saw a stunning success this week with the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
As the leader for Al Qaeda in Iraq, Mr. Zarqawi was a vicious operational chief responsible for the worst atrocities against Iraqis, US and coalition soldiers, the United Nations, and many foreigners. He was the instigator for a budding civil war between Iraq's minority Sunnis (his allies) and the majority Shiites. His tactics ranged from beheadings to suicide bombings. He was the face of the insurgency and the main recruiter for foreign jihadists.
His goal was to block the creation of an Iraqi democracy that is threatening Al Qaeda's hopes of bringing Muslims into a single theocratic state in the Middle East. As bad as his handiwork was in Iraq (and Jordan), enticing him and other Al Qaeda supporters to fight the US in the Middle East might have indeed helped divert the group from conducting another Sept. 11-style attack in the US.
Al Qaeda's prospect of creating an Islamic caliphate has faded as Iraq has moved ever so slowly toward an elected, constitutional government. In fact, the ability of the US to locate Zarqawi and seven advisers Wednesday in a hideout near Baghdad may have been enhanced by the turning of the political tide toward democracy as well as disgust with his violence.
Sunnis have become more willing to provide intelligence tips to the new government and US forces. Just two years ago, they were boycotting elections. Now their leaders hold top ministries. Thursday, Iraq's first full-term elected government was fully formed with the filling of three key security posts.
The Bush administration idea that the advance of democracy (even more than US military might and spy work) is the key weapon against Islamic terrorism has been given a boost by the killing of Zarqawi.
But just a boost.
Iraq's government could still fall apart if its fledgling army doesn't perform better against Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias. Its political alliances could falter if the promised rewrite of the Constitution ends up in stalemate over such issues as divvying up oil wealth. Mundane tasks of governing such as providing electricity supplies are still far from complete. And the critical goal of establishing the rule of law is a long way off, hindered in part by the lingering question of the role of Islam in government.
The US can show its own respect for the law by a quick and transparent probe of the claims of US troop atrocities last November in the town of Haditha. Iraqis might also hold more faith in the courts once the trial of Saddam Hussein is complete.
These two, nearly simultaneous victories - a completed Iraq government and the killing of Zarqawi - could prop up the sagging patience of American support for the effort in Iraq as well as enhance the morale of US troops.
Al Qaeda will probably replace Zarqawi in Iraq. US persistence is needed to keep rolling back the jihadists and insurgents - less and less by the US and more and more by a democratic Iraq.