In the Mideast, Not Sure What to Think

Lebanese gather in an electronics shop in the southern port city of Sidon to watch the latest news about the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Lebanese gather in an electronics shop in the southern port city of Sidon to watch the latest news about the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. (By Mohammed Zaatari -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 9, 2006

TRIPOLI, Lebanon, June 8 -- Sheik Fathi Yakan is not one to be faint of heart. A 50-year veteran of Islamic politics in a city growing ever more religious, he has adorned his office with the iconography of jihad. "Victory or martyrdom," reads one slogan, emblazoned on a calendar. He celebrates what he calls America's defeat in Iraq and embraces a never-ending struggle against the United States.

But when it came to the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq on Wednesday, Yakan's language of absolutes melted into ambiguity. Martyr or villain? Like many in the Arab world, he shook his head, unsure what to say.

"I don't know him well enough to say whether in the end he was good or bad," said Yakan, 73, a long gray beard falling over his tie, his thick gray hair combed back. "I myself couldn't determine his intentions."

In a region roiling with resentment over U.S. policy and fear of its repercussions, Zarqawi's death was greeted much as his life was: with confusion and suspicion. Some in Tripoli and elsewhere in the Arab world hailed him as a hero, as they might anyone fighting the United States. Others expressed relief and joy at the death of a man blamed for killing hundreds of innocent Iraqis. But often heard Thursday was a sense of wariness -- no one was quite sure who Zarqawi was, or what his death meant.

"There are so many question marks around the phenomenon of Zarqawi," said Sheik Bilal Shaaban, the leader of al-Tawhid al-Islami, a long-standing conservative Sunni Muslim group in Tripoli.

There sometimes seem to be two realities at work in the Middle East: an American version of U.S. policy toward Iraq, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere, and another version heard in the streets of tradition-bound cities such as Tripoli, where distrust of the United States -- its alliance with Israel, its aims in Iraq and the region -- runs so deep that almost anything it pronounces lacks credibility.

Zarqawi exemplified that distrust, and from the beginning of his emergence in Iraq, many speculated that he was either an American creation or, at the very least, a convenient foil whose reputation and role the U.S. military encouraged and exaggerated in Iraq. (It was disclosed earlier this year that the military had launched a psychological campaign to magnify his role.) Although those suspicions had faded in recent months, they lingered Thursday, as hardly anyone claimed to know precisely what Zarqawi's agenda was.

"The United States embellished Zarqawi's role," said Ahmad Arfaj, a 36-year-old writer having lunch with a friend in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. "I think he was responsible for only 10 percent of the operations attributed to him." Added his friend, Ahmad Adnan: "A criminal has been killed. He killed more civilians than he did U.S. Army personnel."

In the earliest days of the U.S. occupation in Iraq in 2003, the insurgency was lionized by many in the region, stunned by the speed of President Saddam Hussein's collapse in the U.S. invasion.

Since then, perceptions have become more complicated, sometimes confused, and even ardent supporters of the insurgency worry today about the repercussions of Iraq's strife on the region. Car bombs targeting Iraq's Shiite Muslims, usually blamed on Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq organization, have stoked anger among co-religionists in the Persian Gulf and Lebanon. In a sign of sectarian tension, rumors spread among Sunnis in Tripoli on Thursday that Shiites in Beirut were handing out sweets to celebrate Zarqawi's death.

On both sides of the sectarian divide, revulsion has greeted the carnage in the streets of Baghdad and other cities, along with disgust at the videotaped beheadings and executions that make their rounds on the Internet and became a trademark of Zarqawi's followers.

Yakan, the cleric in Tripoli, said he had sent a letter through Iraqi clerics demanding that Zarqawi stop. "A lot of what he did was illegitimate," he said.

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