He is the new Osama bin Laden, a malevolent genius of violent Islamic fundamentalism with a $25 million bounty on his head and a knack for manipulating the Western media.
In the international online press, Abu Musab Zarqawi is seen as a brutally skillful, if overrated, foe of the U.S. and British forces that are seeking to crush the Iraqi insurgency in time for Iraqi national elections scheduled for January 2005.
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In the past month the 38-year-old Jordanian man believed to be hiding in Fallujah, has orchestrated a string of kidnappings and videotaped beheadings that have appalled the world. In Britain, the plight of British hostage Kenneth Bigley, who has been held for 20 days, has received much more emotional coverage than the abduction and execution of two American contractors covered in the U.S. press last month.
Portraying Zarqawi draped over a clothes hanger, cartoonist Amgad Rasmi of the London-based daily Asharq Al-Awsat suggests the United States wants to blame everything that has gone wrong in Iraq on this one man.
In Australia, the Age calls him "more myth than man" and alleges that "American intelligence obtained through bribery may have seriously overstated" his role in Iraq's insurgency. "We were basically paying up to $US10,000 a time to opportunists, criminals and chancers who passed off fiction and supposition about Zarqawi as cast-iron fact, making him out as the linchpin of just about every attack in Iraq," one unnamed U.S. agent told the Sydney-based daily.
"We needed a villain, someone identifiable for the public to latch on to, and we got one," the source said.
For antiwar commentators like Sami Ramadani, an Iraqi exile writing for the Guardian, the media focus on Zarqawi is an "insidious misrepresentation" of the "patriotic and widespread resistance movement" in Iraq.
Ramadani notes that U.S.-led have forces have acknowledged 2,700 insurgent attacks in the past month. "And how many of these 2,700 attacks a month were claimed by Zarqawi?" he asks. "Six. Six headline-grabbing, TV-dominating, stomach-churning moments."
"Just as Iraq's 25 million people were reduced, in the public's mind, to the threat from weapons of mass destruction, ready to be unleashed within 45 minutes, the resistance is now being reduced to a single hoodlum," he writes.
No one doubts Zarqawi's skill in capturing attention is out of proportion to the size of his forces, which are thought to number in the hundreds. The recent wave of kidnappings is "a beautiful example of what military intellectuals call asymmetrical warfare," analyst Robin Bhatty of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group told Middle East Online, a news site based in the Persian Gulf. "The weak point for the multinational forces is not the armed forces or even the police, it's the coalition itself."
That's why pro-war editors of London's Daily Telegraph fear Zarqawi's success in nurturing "the impression of Western impotence," and encouraging "the misapprehension that Mr. Bigley's suffering is somehow the consequence of decisions taken by President Bush and, more specifically, Tony Blair."
Michael Gove, columnist for the Australian says Islamic fundamentalists have been "carefully using Bigley's capture to shift British public opinion in an anti-war direction."
"Those barbarians know how a story such as that of Bigley can capture our imagination, and they are exploiting not just our compassion but also the media's addiction to life-by-a-thread, something-must-be-done, ministers-yet-again-found-wanting stories," Gove writes.
In the Arab press, debate focuses on Zarqawi's tactics. Last week, the International Association for Muslim Scholars, a London-based group, denounced the kidnapping and killing of civilians and called for "swift release" of all hostage in Iraq, according to Islam Online, a Persian Gulf news site.
But an unidentified Islamist Arab who recently met with Zarqawi told the London-based daily Al-Hayat that Zarqawi is convinced that his operations are permitted by Sharia [Islamic law], and that the hostages "are not truly hostages" but spies who deserve death. The story, as translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), also takes issue with claims made by President Bush and others that Zarqawi has a working relationship with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
"There is no organizational connection between them," the source said. "On the contrary, many Arab youth have said that they will swear allegiance to Zarqawi provided that he swear allegiance to Sheikh Osama. They say that... he used to say: 'To this day I have not sworn allegiance to Sheikh Osama and I am not acting in the framework of his organization.'"
The transcript of a speech made by Zarqawi on September 11, also translated by MEMRI, highlights one often-overlooked fact: Zarqawi is not only waging war on Americans, but also on Kurds and Shiites.
His enemy, he declared, is "the tripartite Satanic coalition of heresy and deceit in the land of the two rivers. The first are the Americans who carry the banner of the cross; the second are the Kurds through their pesh merga forces, ... which are reinforced by Jewish military cadres; the third are the Shiites, the Sunnis' enemies... "
In short, Zarqawi is aiming for civil war in Iraq. With the spread of violence in the country few seem willing to say he won't succeed.