Zarqawi Helped U.S. Argument That Al-Qaeda Network Was in Iraq

By Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 10, 2006

From the moment President Bush introduced him to the American people in October 2002, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi served a crucial purpose for the administration, providing a tangible focus for its insistence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was linked to the al-Qaeda terrorist network responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

After the invasion that toppled Hussein, and the subsequent rise of the insurgency against occupying U.S. forces, Zarqawi's presence in Iraq was cited as proof that the uprising was fomented by al-Qaeda-backed "foreign fighters."

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld described Zarqawi as "the leading terrorist in Iraq and one of three senior al-Qaeda leaders worldwide."

In addition to his indisputably prominent role in the Iraqi insurgency, Zarqawi was always a useful source of propaganda for the administration. Magnification of his role and of the threat he posed grew to the point that some senior intelligence officers believed it was counterproductive.

But the administration also occasionally found it useful to play down Zarqawi's importance and influence. In early 2004, the then-governing Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad triumphantly displayed an intercepted letter from Zarqawi to the al-Qaeda leadership that it said illustrated the terrorist's despair in the face of an increasingly competent U.S.-trained Iraqi security force.

"The exact quote he uses is, and I quote Mr. Zarqawi, 'With the spread of the army and police, our future is becoming frightening,' " CPA spokesman Dan Senor told a Baghdad news conference.

Similar publicity was given to a letter intercepted last year in which al-Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, humbled Zarqawi with criticism of his public beheading of hostages and attacks on fellow Muslims.

At times, the conflicting messages seemed to overlap. In April, a top U.S. military official cited Zarqawi's failure to disrupt elections for a new Iraqi government as "a tactical admission" of defeat. Zarqawi and al-Qaeda, said Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, XVIII Airborne Corps commander, in a Washington address, "no longer view Iraq as fertile ground to establish a caliphate and as a place to conduct international terrorism."

That same month, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, U.S. military spokesman, told a Baghdad news briefing that more than 90 percent of the suicide attacks in Iraq were carried out by terrorist forces recruited and trained by Zarqawi.

Even as they were locked in genuine confrontation on the battlefield, Zarqawi and the United States engaged for years in public, tit-for-tat insults.

On April 25, Zarqawi brazenly showed his face for the first time in a video posted on the Internet. In a lengthy diatribe, he accused Bush of lying to Americans about U.S. military victories in Iraq. U.S. forces, he predicted, "will go out of Iraq humiliated, defeated." The video showed Zarqawi, bearded and dressed in black, strutting across a desert landscape, wielding an automatic weapon.

Ten days later, the United States counterattacked. In Baghdad, Lynch displayed what he said were outtakes from the Zarqawi video, captured during a raid on an al-Qaeda safe house in the city.

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