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With a Death, an Opening

By David Ignatius
Friday, June 9, 2006

BEIRUT -- The Arab news channels were all carrying the same image of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, taken from Thursday's Pentagon briefing. He looked almost baby-faced in death, but people in this part of the world understood what he symbolized. This was the face of raw physical intimidation, the symbol of a nation pulverized by pure terror.

Zarqawi was never the master strategist the Americans sometimes made him out to be. The foot soldiers of the insurgency were mostly former Saddam Hussein loyalists, not religious fanatics. Zarqawi's power was that he was an especially ruthless killer -- and that until Wednesday, America couldn't catch him.

Therein lies the opening provided by Zarqawi's death. It raised the lid of fear a few inches so that Iraq could take a breath. It destroyed the worst of the worst, making life a little safer for everyone else. It offered a too-rare example in modern Iraq that the killers don't always succeed and that the culture of death isn't the only one left for the country. Most of all, his death allows the new Iraqi government to reach a truce with the insurgents who have been cowed or awed into backing Zarqawi.

Zarqawi took brutality to a new level, even by local standards. He hated Shiite Muslims, so he bombed their mosques, their restaurants, the barracks where their sons reported for police or military service. In a letter released by the Pentagon in February 2004, Zarqawi sneered at the Shiites as "the most cowardly people God has created." Recently, he even proclaimed his intention to murder the Iraqi Shiites' most revered religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Though he proclaimed himself the champion of Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Zarqawi hated them, too -- at least those who dared to challenge his authority. Sunni tribal leaders from Anbar province told me last year that if Zarqawi even suspected them of collaborating with the United States, they would be dead. But that wasn't the worst of it, they said: Zarqawi would kill your brother, your cousin, even your wife to get at you. When I was in Mosul in late 2004, I heard stories of how Zarqawi's men had gone through local neighborhoods distributing videos of their beheadings of collaborators.

And he hated the Americans and their allies who came to Iraq hoping to destroy "the republic of fear," as Kanan Makiya described Hussein's dictatorship. Zarqawi's most devastating attack on this Western project may have been the August 2003 bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. As intended, it frightened the United Nations away. He kidnapped foreign workers, foreign diplomats, foreign journalists. The idea was to shut down Iraq -- to make it a no-go zone, the kind of place that Beirut became during the wave of kidnappings in the mid-1980s. It's a testimony to the bravery of all the foreign journalists, diplomats and others still in Iraq, and of those who have been killed and wounded there, that they refused to be intimidated into leaving.

Zarqawi's methods were so brutal that they drew criticism even from his nominal patrons in al-Qaeda. In a lengthy letter written in July 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group's second-ranking leader, warned Zarqawi that his brutal tactics were frightening away ordinary Muslims. "[T]he common folk are wondering" when they read about bombings of mosques and beheadings of victims, Zawahiri said. He urged Zarqawi to think about a broader strategy for creating an Islamic government when the Americans grew tired and ran away.

But the Americans haven't run away, at least not yet. And Zarqawi was driven to ever more extravagant acts of terrorism. It's as if he feared he would lose his hold over people if he didn't keep upping the ante of blood. Zarqawi took the war into Jordan last November, bombing three hotels and butchering dozens of guests at a wedding. He bombed the Shiite holy city of Karbala in January, killing scores. Supporters of Zarqawi's anti-Shiite line bombed the Golden Mosque in Samarra in February, setting off a wave of counter-killings that brought Iraq perilously near Zarqawi's goal of an all-out civil war. Indeed, Iraq seemed to be teetering on the brink of that abyss Wednesday, when American forces staged a raid in which, for once, all the pieces of the U.S. arsenal worked together in perfect order.

The new Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, would be wise if he followed the suggestion that Zawahiri gave to his henchman Zarqawi last year. "Fill the void," the al-Qaeda leader urged. That's what the Iraqis and Americans need to do now in the moment of opportunity offered by Zarqawi's death. Destroy his networks around the country. Peel off his supporters among the ex-Baathists and former regime loyalists; break his hold in towns such as Ramadi and Baqubah; get the Iraqi government out of the Green Zone and into the streets, where it can embolden ordinary Iraqis to believe that the republic of fear has ended.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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