Al Qaeda's Hydra head in Iraq

The gruesome deaths of the two young American soldiers, Pfc. Kristian Menchaca and Pfc. Thomas Tucker, as well as the death of another at the sight of the ambush this past week, Spc. David Babineau, is likely a move by Al Qaeda in Iraq to herald its resiliency following the death of its leader, Abu Musab al- Zarqawi.

Now that the charismatic leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is gone, it is imperative to assess how his demise will affect the survival of his organization and the Iraqi insurgency, or resistance.

It is no question that after the killing of Mr. Zarqawi and the formation of a national unity government, the Americans and their Iraqi allies are hoping to continue building momentum to keep Al Qaeda off balance. "We believe that this is the beginning of the end of Al Qaeda in Iraq," Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser said at the time.

But although a key insurgency leader in Iraq conceded that the killing of Zarqawi was a "great loss," he said it was one that would strengthen Al Qaeda's determination to fight, while spiraling sectarian conflict will supply Al Qaeda with fresh and passionate recruits.

What are we to make of the two sharply contrasting viewpoints?

The security situation in Iraq is more complicated and unstable than either the Americans or their nemesis would have it. Zarqawi left behind a "bitter legacy" of sectarianism and bloodletting that split the resistance, the founder of Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish faction affiliated with Al Qaeda, told Al Jazeera, even though he showered Zarqawi with praise.

This bitter legacy does not bode well for a smooth transition within Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. There are already two contenders to the Zarqawi throne: Abu Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi, and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir – who the Americans say is actually Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian – who has already anointed himself the new leader.

Mr. Baghdadi was a former officer in the Iraqi Army, or its elite Republican Guard, and a trusted aide to Zarqawi since 2003. Mr. Muhajir, or Masri, an Al Qaeda veteran trained in Afghanistan, was a lieutenant in Ayman al-Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad before its union with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda in 1998. He has long-standing ties to his mentor, Mr. Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's No. 2. He worked closely with Zarqawi in Iraq since at least 2003 and participated in the battle of Fallujah in 2004. Unlike Zarqawi, who built a personal empire, Masri would be more receptive to guidance by Al Qaeda central.

Thus there might be greater influence from the Afghan-Pakistani border where Mr. bin Laden and Zawahiri are believed to be hiding. This new guidance might herald a shift in the tactics and strategies of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia – targeting the coalition forces and Iraqi security personnel instead of the Shiites and their religious shrines.

Al Qaeda's claim that it attacked American soldiers and "slaughtered them" in the Sunni Arab region known as the "triangle of death" may be an early indicator of this shift.

In their purported statements, neither Baghdadi nor Masri mentioned or pledged allegiance to the other. In the jihadist universe, it is unusual for militants to appear politically ambitious and make a public bid to be appointed emir, or commander. Both say they believe in Zarqawi's extremist ideology and have reportedly vowed to complete what their predecessor has begun. Their split is along home-grown Iraqi vs. foreign-born lines; this subtle media dance only masks the struggle for the soul of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

According to Islamists, infighting is bound to wreck the organization unless bin Laden and his deputy, Zawahiri, intervene and appoint a new replacement, which is a likely scenario.

However, it would be premature to assume Zarqawi's death will cause the destruction of Al Qaeda or a waning of the Iraqi resistance. The umbilical cord of Zarqawi's men is tied to the American military occupation of an Arab country, a former leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad had told me earlier.

Equally important, Zarqawi built an indigenous Iraqi base that will survive him.

"The Americans have blown up the importance of Zarqawi," a dissident Shiite Iraqi leader told me while visiting Beirut this week. "They will soon discover that the resistance is viable, and that the removal of Zarqawi will strengthen, not weaken, it," this man, who knows the resistance from the inside, explained over lunch at a Lebanese cafe in downtown Beirut.

"Why so?" I asked.

"Over 90 percent of fighters are Iraqi nationalist and Islamist patriots, as opposed to Al Qaeda's foreign mercenaries, who target the occupiers and local collaborators," he stressed. "Iraqis must be allowed to determine their own political future without foreign intervention – be it American, Iranian, or Al Qaeda's suicide squads. The Americans must withdraw the bulk of their military forces from Iraq – the sooner the better."

"Are you not worried about your country sinking into full sectarian strife?"

"No," he retorted. "Iraqis will rise to the challenge. It is our country; it is our future."

Fawaz A. Gerges, author of the recently published "Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy," is a Carnegie scholar. He is spending 15 months in the Middle East conducting field research.

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