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 terror war)."
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 movie."
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.