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.
Yakan said he would not put Zarqawi in the category of Osama bin Laden, whom he admires, and pointedly declined to describe him as a martyr. In fact, he and others said they thought Zarqawi's death might actually improve the image of the insurgency. With Zarqawi and his incitements toward a civil war gone, they said, the insurgency could return its focus to the U.S. occupation.
"Now they can prove the resistance is not Zarqawi's resistance," Shaaban said.
Some analysts predicted that in an ensuing power struggle, more-radical elements might win out; to claim leadership, they said, there could be a tendency toward even more ruthlessness and violence.
That Zarqawi was still hailed in some parts of the region was a vivid illustration of the depth of resentment toward the United States and the way the war in Iraq has joined the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a provocation.
The radical Islamic group Hamas, which won control of the Palestinian parliament in January, deplored the U.S. airstrike that killed Zarqawi and praised him as a martyr. "With hearts full of faith, Hamas commends brother-fighter Abu Musab . . . who was martyred at the hands of the savage crusade campaign which targets the Arab homeland, starting in Iraq," the statement said.
"People don't like Zarqawi, but they hate America," said Abdul-Min'im Mustapha, Egypt bureau chief for the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. "They are upset about the death of Zarqawi because they think it's a victory for America."
Radical Islamic Web sites marked his death; even there, though, the ambiguity of his reputation sometimes emerged. "You might disagree with me on some of the paths taken by Zarqawi, but you have to agree he gave the worshipers of the cross and apostates a taste of torture and set the earth under their feet on fire," wrote one person who identified himself as Dari on the al-Sahat Web site. "This hero was one of those useful to God on the battlefield."
At a street corner in Tripoli, three men sipped coffee next to a vegetable stand. From a stall came the sound of al-Jazeera television's round-the-clock coverage of Zarqawi's death. One of the men jumped up when asked about his fate.
"We are so angry!" 45-year-old Mohammed Deeb shouted.
"All of us are Zarqawi," his friend Abdel-Fattah Khazna interrupted. "God kill those who killed him."
At about that time, an argument erupted on al-Jazeera itself. One of its guests, Hassan Salman, a Beirut-based Iraqi analyst, accused al-Jazeera of organizing what amounted to condolences for Zarqawi. When the anchor, Jamil Azer, said all parties were being interviewed, including Americans, Salman retorted: "We're not Americans, we are the Iraqi people and today is a wedding day for us. This man was a nightmare to all of us, and especially to the Sunnis."
Special correspondents Faiza Saleh Ambah in Jiddah and Alia Ibrahim in Beirut contributed to this report.