Iraq: Zarqawi killed, US loses strategic scapegoat; death grinds on

By now we’ve all heard that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, notorious leader of “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” was killed in a US airstrike late June 7. Seven aides, including two women, were also killed in the raid on a remote area 50 kilometres northeast of Baghdad near Baquba, capital of volatile Diyala province. Major General Bill Caldwell, spokesman for the US forces in Iraq, showed a picture of a dead Zarqawi at a televised news conference in Baghdad. He said two F-16 warplanes dropped two 500-pound bombs on the site where Zarqawi was killed. President Bush said at the White House that Zarqawi’s death “is a severe blow to al-Qaida and it is a significant victory in the war on terror,” but admitted “we have tough days ahead of us in Iraq that will require the continued patience of the American people.” Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the killing of Zarqawi was “enormously important” for the fight against terror in Iraq and around the world, but he cautioned: “Given the nature of the terrorist networks, the network of networks, the death of Zarqawi, while enormously important, will not mean the end of all violence of that country.” (China Daily, June 9)

These guys are wise to hedge their bets. On the euphoric day after the killing, this supposed Terror War victory dominated global headlines, and the triumphalism was given a boost by the filling of the last three vacant posts in the fractious Iraqi cabinet. What failed to dominate the news June 9 were the bombs that killed at least 31 people in Baghdad. In the deadliest blast, a roadside bomb in a crowded market in eastern New Baghdad district killed 13 and wounded 28. One car bomb exploded in the northwestern Shiite district of Kadhimiya, killing seven and wounding 17, while a second car bomb in the east of the capital killed six and wounded 13. A third car bomb killed five and wounded 10 in the mostly Shiite district of Shaab, east of the Tigris. (AFP, June 9)

This April 10 story from the Washington Post indicates that Zarqawi’s death may actually be a setback for the US, depriving the White House and Pentagon of an effective scapegoat:

Military Plays Up Role of Zarqawi
Jordanian Painted As Foreign Threat To Iraq’s Stability

By Thomas E. Ricks

The U.S. military is conducting a propaganda campaign to magnify the role of the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to internal military documents and officers familiar with the program. The effort has raised his profile in a way that some military intelligence officials believe may have overstated his importance and helped the Bush administration tie the war to the organization responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The documents state that the U.S. campaign aims to turn Iraqis against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, by playing on their perceived dislike of foreigners. U.S. authorities claim some success with that effort, noting that some tribal Iraqi insurgents have attacked Zarqawi loyalists.

For the past two years, U.S. military leaders have been using Iraqi media and other outlets in Baghdad to publicize Zarqawi’s role in the insurgency. The documents explicitly list the “U.S. Home Audience” as one of the targets of a broader propaganda campaign.

Some senior intelligence officers believe Zarqawi’s role may have been overemphasized by the propaganda campaign, which has included leaflets, radio and television broadcasts, Internet postings and at least one leak to an American journalist. Although Zarqawi and other foreign insurgents in Iraq have conducted deadly bombing attacks, they remain “a very small part of the actual numbers,” Col. Derek Harvey, who served as a military intelligence officer in Iraq and then was one of the top officers handling Iraq intelligence issues on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an Army meeting at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., last summer.

In a transcript of the meeting, Harvey said, “Our own focus on Zarqawi has enlarged his caricature, if you will — made him more important than he really is, in some ways.”

“The long-term threat is not Zarqawi or religious extremists, but these former regime types and their friends,” said Harvey, who did not return phone calls seeking comment on his remarks.

There has been a running argument among specialists in Iraq about how much significance to assign to Zarqawi, who spent seven years in prison in Jordan for attempting to overthrow the government there. After his release he spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan before moving his base of operations to Iraq. He has been sentenced to death in absentia for planning the 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley in Jordan. U.S. authorities have said he is responsible for dozens of deaths in Iraq and have placed a $25 million bounty on his head.

Recently there have been unconfirmed reports of a possible rift between Zarqawi and the parent al-Qaeda organization that may have resulted in his being demoted or cut loose. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that it was unclear what was happening between Zarqawi and al-Qaeda. “It may be that he’s not being fired at all, but that he is being focused on the military side of the al-Qaeda effort and he’s being asked to leave more of a political side possibly to others, because of some disagreements within al-Qaeda,” he said.

The military’s propaganda program largely has been aimed at Iraqis, but seems to have spilled over into the U.S. media. One briefing slide about U.S. “strategic communications” in Iraq, prepared for Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, describes the “home audience” as one of six major targets of the American side of the war.

That slide, created by Casey’s subordinates, does not specifically state that U.S. citizens were being targeted by the effort, but other sections of the briefings indicate that there were direct military efforts to use the U.S. media to affect views of the war. One slide in the same briefing, for example, noted that a “selective leak” about Zarqawi was made to Dexter Filkins, a New York Times reporter based in Baghdad. Filkins’s resulting article, about a letter supposedly written by Zarqawi and boasting of suicide attacks in Iraq, ran on the Times front page on Feb. 9, 2004.

Leaks to reporters from U.S. officials in Iraq are common, but official evidence of a propaganda operation using an American reporter is rare.

Filkins, reached by e-mail, said that he was not told at the time that there was a psychological operations campaign aimed at Zarqawi, but said he assumed that the military was releasing the letter “because it had decided it was in its best interest to have it publicized.” No special conditions were placed upon him in being briefed on its contents, he said. He said he was skeptical about the document’s authenticity then, and remains so now, and so at the time tried to confirm its authenticity with officials outside the U.S. military.

See also our last posts on Zarqawi, his growing isolation from the jihadi movement in recent months, and the schisms he provoked in the Iraqi insurgency.

See our last post on Iraq.

  1. Houzan Mahmoud on Zarqawi
    Houzan Mahmoud of the Iraq Freedom Congress on the Zarqawi killing, from The Guardian blog, June 12:

    Zarqawi’s death will solve nothing. The real problem is the US-led occupation

    The US government and its puppet regime in Iraq welcomed the killing of the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: the symbol of terror, killing, hostage-taking, beheading and violence in Iraq was dead.

    A criminal such as Zarqawi, who made the Iraqi people victims of his terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, does not deserve sympathy of any kind. Numerous hostages were executed in his terror houses. He used the occupation of Iraq as an excuse to recruit and brainwash young people from across the Middle East and Europe, and to use them as human bullets and rockets.

    But his death does not remove the core problems in Iraqi society: the US/UK occupation and the chaos and reaction it has engendered. Zarqawi is a product of the occupation, a jihadist “warrior” claiming to fight a “holy war” against the occupiers while in fact aiming his blows at innocent civilians, above all at Iraqi workers, women and progressives. The occupation has produced many Zarqawis in Iraq. The US is welcoming his death in order to distract attention from its own ugly crimes against the Iraqi people. The recent massacre of civilians in Haditha is just the tip of the iceberg of the crimes US forces have committed against the people of Iraq.

    Meanwhile, the occupation has created an opportunity for the forced Islamisation of Iraq. The political Islamists who are friends of the US and who dominate its puppet regime are no less criminal than Zarqawi and his thugs.

    The Badr corps of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) has been a key force in imposing religious totalitarianism on the Iraqi people, wielding its sectarian violence against women, above all. And the Mahdi army of Moqtada al-Sadr was rewarded for its terrorist activities in southern Iraq with seats in the so-called parliament. Both forces regularly kill women, gay men and lesbians and trade unionists.

    In some places Islamists are even ordering farmers to put shorts on their female goats and sheep. And in certain street markets the display of tomatoes and cucumbers is banned due to their association with genital organs.

    The list of terrorist atrocities that the Islamists, both pro- and anti-US, have carried out against the Iraqi people is endless. All this demonstrates the kind of regime change and “democracy” that the US invasion has brought to Iraq. The death of Zarqawi – a criminal who was certainly behind the death and beheading of many people, including women – will solve nothing.

    The real problem is the occupation itself. It is this that has spawned Zarqawi, his imitators and Iraq’s growing band of women-haters.

    Only the defeat of both the occupation and the Islamic terrorists by a secular, egalitarian movement of workers and women can bring the dark tragedy currently engulfing Iraq to an end.