By Nelson Hernandez and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 9, 2006
BAGHDAD, June 8 -- The patrons of Ameer Madhloom's restaurant in central Baghdad stared at the television Thursday morning, stunned into silence by what they had just heard: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was dead.
A man cried out: "Did you hear that? Can you believe that the one who killed hundreds of us Shiites is dead now? Thank God!"
Madhloom later described how a wave of jubilant relief washed over the restaurant, located in a predominantly Shiite Muslim area of Baghdad that is largely hostile to al-Qaeda in Iraq, Zarqawi's Sunni Arab insurgent organization. Customers clapped and shouted, "God is greatest!" as three men passed out soft drinks. "It is a day of festivity," one of them said.
Elsewhere in the capital, many Iraqis greeted the news with cheers, applause, ululation, celebratory gunfire and feasting. But Zarqawi's death came as ominous news to other Iraqis who saw him as a fearless defender of the country's Sunni minority against foreign occupiers, Shiite death squads and Iranian agents.
Within hours, emotions had subsided, and both sides wearily acknowledged that the war would go on. In Najaf, a Shiite holy city south of Baghdad, the son of a senior Shiite religious leader warned of more fighting.
"It is unfortunate that one of the Arabs would go on with his tyranny till he dies in a very bad way," Ali al-Najafi said. "We should know that this is not the end of the road. It is just the beginning of putting terrorism down."
But the feeling in Madhloom's restaurant for those first few minutes was euphoric. Patrons sipped soda and watched the television as the prime minister, the U.S. ambassador and an American general announced that an airstrike had finally killed the man they had pursued for three years.
"This is great news, not only for Iraqis but for the neighboring countries, like Jordan, which lost many in his attacks at Amman," said Dhia Nouri, a student. "Everyone will remember him as a criminal, and no one will remember him as a holy warrior."
That opinion was not unanimous, however. While Zarqawi's goal of establishing an Islamic state in Iraq was not widely embraced, many Sunnis saw him as their only defender in a country whose government is dominated by Shiites and subject to foreign influence.
"Zarqawi was the one who put a limit to Shiite influence and all the killing of Sunnis," said Saad Saleem, a 32-year-old laborer. "It is a big loss. Who will fight the Americans the way he used to fight them? They were ready to leave the country because of his operations. Now there will be no one like him who will be able to push the Americans to leave Iraq. There will be no one to stop the Iranian Shiites. Al-Qaeda must look for a good replacement for Zarqawi. Otherwise the Sunnis will lose everything in Iraq."
In the end, the news was sweetest for those rejoicing that justice had finally been served to the killer of their relatives.
A black banner commemorating his brother's death still hangs on the front gate of Hamza Abid Rekhaies al-Eqabbi's house in Sadr City, a predominantly Shiite district in Baghdad. His brother, Qassim, was killed on March 13 in a car bombing.
"When my young son came and brought me the good news, I did not know what to do out of joy," Eqabbi said of Zarqawi's death. "I took my motorcycle and went to the traffic police sector over here where I work. I was shouting in the street and could see the people in the street with joy on their faces, for each family here has lost someone because of this guy. We thank God for what happened to him."
Back at Madhloom's restaurant, Sawsan Abdul Qadir, a nurse, reflected on losing his own brother in another car bombing. "He was a father of three kids," he said.
When Abdul Qadir heard about Zarqawi's death, he called his brother's wife. "She was so happy, and she told me, 'The Americans got revenge for my husband. I feel just like they brought him back alive for me.' Her oldest son was saying, 'They killed my father's killer.'
"Today, I forget all the sadness of losing my brother."
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and Salih Saif Aldin in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.