by Austin Bay
June 8, 2006
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death is, like Branch Rickey's definition
of luck, the residue of design.
A U.S. Air Force strike on a farmhouse near the Iraqi town of
Baqubah killed Zarqawi, known as Z-Man to his pursuers. His deeds mark him
as a savage mass murderer and a religious zealot with a mile-wide streak of
megalomania. He was also a gambler, an operational terrorist "commander" who
sought to incite a sectarian civil war, theorizing a Shia-Sunni conflict in
Iraq would (in his words) "rally Sunni Arabs" to al-Qaida.
Zarqawi understood his own strategic dilemma. He knew an Iraqi
democracy means the defeat of his brand of Islamo-fascism. In a letter from
Zarqawi to his al-Qaida superiors, captured in early 2004, the terrorist
chieftain wrote: When "the sons of this land (Iraq) will be the authority
... this is the democracy. We will have no pretexts (i.e., for waging a
The nickname Z-Man may suggest a Hollywood thriller with a
conclusive chase scene. The hunt for al-Qaida's Prince of Iraq, however, has
been long, complex and frustrating. In 2004, when I served in Iraq, Z-Man
topped Multi-National Corps-Iraq's wanted list. One of the special
operations liaison officers attached to Corps' headquarters would greet me
in the morning with a wry, "We were busy last night." The special ops
personnel stay busy -- but hunting senior al-Qaida leaders ranked as the
highest priority. The corps' senior special ops liaison officer told me the
week I left Iraq: "We'll get Zarqawi, eventually. But it's a hard, slow job
finding one guy with the kind of protection he has. It's not a Hollywood
The hard, slow work of collecting and analyzing intelligence
leads might yield an ephemeral intelligence breakthrough, one requiring
near-instantaneous rapid reaction in order to launch a successful strike on
the terrorist and his cohorts.
Zarqawi evaded several close encounters of the lethal kind with
Coalition special operations forces. This week, Z-Man's luck ran out.
Zarqawi's death is not a major military victory, but it is a
major political victory for the Iraqis and the new Iraqi government.
Terrorist car bombs will continue to explode and murder men, women and
children. Iraqi commentators, among them Omar of the Web log Iraq-the-Model,
believe al-Qaida will launch revenge strikes.
Zarqawi's death is not a turning point. The War on Terror is a
war of ideological and political attrition, and in wars of abrasion there
are few turning points, only long trends. The long-term trends in Iraq are
positive -- an emerging democracy in the heart of the politically
dysfunctional Arab Muslim Middle East is astonishing news.
Zarqawi's death does give Iraq a significant psychological
boost, and provides Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's new government
with a huge political and media opportunity.
Maliki and his government are building a democratic political
process -- a difficult job where successes are incremental. Removing Zarqawi
forwards that process, in several ways.
Maliki promised the Iraqi people he will improve the internal
security situation. Beginning in late 2003, Zarqawi attempted to ignite a
sectarian civil war between Iraqi Shias and Sunnis. Maliki can use Zarqawi's
death to help heal those sectarian rifts in Iraq.
Zarqawi's death serves as an important media and political
touchstone for the new Iraqi government. The successful counter-terror
operation focused international press attention on the prime minister's
appointment of a new minister of defense, minister of interior and minister
of national security. His cabinet is now complete.
Maliki must take further advantage of the moment. Terror bombs
draw large headlines -- and that's understandable, for the bombs are
dramatic news. Over time, however, media focus on bombs and terrorist
massacre has tended to obscure or limit recognition of Iraq's incremental
successes -- the daily, meticulous, trial-and-error efforts it takes to
create a democratic state and win a war. Bombs have media sizzle -- an
explosion gives a TV producer a "hot image" that attracts eyeballs. Bricks
lack sizzle, and a story that builds brick-by-brick is tough to cover,
especially in a 24-7 news cycle.
Zarqawi's "termination" is a paradoxical headline -- a dramatic
event that turns eyes and critical interest toward Iraq's new government and
the slow but remarkable successes that created it.