After Zarqawi, No Clear Path In Weary Iraq

A U.S. soldier sets up a photograph of the slain Abu Musab al-Zarqawi at a Baghdad news conference. Reflections on the portrait and its frame, page C1.
A U.S. soldier sets up a photograph of the slain Abu Musab al-Zarqawi at a Baghdad news conference. Reflections on the portrait and its frame, page C1. (By Khalid Mohammed -- Associated Press)
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 9, 2006

BAGHDAD, June 8 -- Analysts and military spokesmen said Thursday that the death of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, killed Wednesday when two 500-pound bombs obliterated his hideout north of Baghdad, will not extinguish the sectarian conflict that he helped foment and that is now claiming many more lives in Iraq than his campaign of beheadings and bombings.

The slaying of the Jordanian-born guerrilla leader eliminated the biggest advocate of the extreme violence against civilians that has made the Iraq war so grisly. Zarqawi and his radical Sunni Arab group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, carried out suicide attacks that could kill 100 or more passersby in a flash of light and videotaped the last gasps of foreign hostages being decapitated.

But other crucial questions, analysts say, are thrown completely up into the air: whether other foreign fighters will show themselves equally eager to slaughter civilians, whether the Sunni insurgency will split into fragments or broaden its base and, above all, whether the Shiite-Sunni killing that Zarqawi's attacks helped unleash can be reined in.

"The immediate aftermath of this will probably be an upsurge of violence" as Sunni insurgents hurry to show that Zarqawi's killing has not broken the resistance, said Michael Clarke, an expert on terrorism at the International Policy Institute of King's College London.

"In the medium term, in the next month or two, it will probably help to downgrade sectarianism," Clarke said by telephone. "But the dynamic of sectarian violence is probably past the point of no return."

Attacks on Shiite Muslim civilians and on Iraq's largely Shiite security forces, often carried out by al-Qaeda in Iraq, fueled violence between Sunnis and Shiites for three years, although no group asserted responsibility for the attack that pushed the bloodletting to its current high level -- the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. Thousands of civilians have died in Baghdad alone since then.

Zarqawi's death "will help, but probably not enough," Clarke said. "If Zarqawi had been killed a year ago, I would be much more positive about the effects of his death than I really can be now."

The U.S. military focused Thursday on the potential impact of Zarqawi's killing on the Sunni insurgency. Without Zarqawi, military officials contended, the insurgency lacks its main fundraiser and figurehead. "He's been really at the forefront in terms of being able to recruit and bring in foreign fighters, so this definitely will disrupt the effort," said one military official familiar with the hunt for Zarqawi.

"No one behind him had the kind of charisma and operational intellect that he brought to the table," the official said. "Our hope is no one can step in, and you end up with fragmentation and perhaps dissension among his followers."

Critics of the U.S. military's campaign in Iraq have accused American commanders of making their own use of Zarqawi, exaggerating the foreigner's importance to suggest that the insurgency has been thrust upon Iraqi Sunnis more than it has been led by them.

Almost as soon as American officials declared Zarqawi dead on Thursday, they pointed to a foreigner as the man they thought likely to take his place.

Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, a U.S. military spokesman, identified the man as Abu al-Masri, an Egyptian and a veteran of the Afghan conflicts. Masri appeared to have come to Iraq in 2002, probably helped found the first Baghdad cell of al-Qaeda in Iraq and was involved in bombmaking, Caldwell told reporters at a Baghdad news conference.

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