After Zarqawi

Patrick Cockburn

The history of the American and British intervention in Iraq has been littered with spurious turning points over the last three years. The latest is the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the best publicised of the insurgent leaders, by US laser-guided bombs on 7 June in a house in Diyala province, north-east of Baghdad. The career of Zarqawi in Iraq was very strange. He was an obscure figure until Colin Powell made him famous by denouncing him before the UN Security Council on 5 February 2003. Powell claimed that Zarqawi was not only a member of al-Qaida but linked to Saddam Hussein’s regime. Neither allegation was true, but together they met the political need to pretend that the invasion of Iraq was part of the war on terror.

The US elevation of Zarqawi to the front rank of al-Qaida leaders was self-fulfilling. To many Iraqis and Muslims wanting to fight the US, he became a symbol of resistance. His notoriety made it easy for him to raise money. In December 2004, Osama bin Laden declared that he was head of al-Qaida in Iraq. ‘The Islamists often seem to follow a script provided by their enemies,’ Loretta Napoleoni writes in her excellent book on Zarqawi.[*] The continued exaggeration by the US of Zarqawi’s role was carefully calculated. He was rarely referred to at US military briefings in Baghdad during the first months of guerrilla war; the guerrillas were supposedly remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime, assisted by a few foreign fighters, whose final elimination was expected by the day.

It was only after Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003 that Zarqawi became pre-eminent at American briefings. It was evident at the time that a decision had been taken to portray him as the explanation for all Iraq’s ills. This was confirmed by US documents leaked earlier this year. ‘Through aggressive Strategic Communications,’ one confidential internal briefing asserted, ‘Abu Musab al-Zarqawi now represents: Terrorism in Iraq/Foreign Fighters in Iraq/Suffering of Iraqi People (Infrastructure Attacks)/Denial of Iraqi Aspirations.’ Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the US military spokesman in Baghdad, said that ‘the Zarqawi PSYOP programme is the most successful information campaign to date.’

Like many apparently successful propaganda campaigns, it had an important drawback: Washington, the US civil officials in Baghdad and the US military came to believe their own hype. They behaved as if Zarqawi and a relatively limited number of insurgents were alone in opposing the occupation. In fact, almost all the five million Sunni Arabs in Iraq supported armed resistance. Such was the American emphasis on Zarqawi’s activities that many Iraqis wondered if he really existed. Certainly, his importance was always exaggerated. Other Sunni insurgent groups liked to blame Zarqawi for their more bloodthirsty actions. But his recently formed Tandhim al-Qaida fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (al-Qaida’s Organisation in Mesopotamia) certainly exists and is probably one of the three or four biggest insurgent groups.

For the last three years there has been a curious co-operation between the US and al-Qaida in promoting the Zarqawi myth. But his death will not necessarily lead to the unravelling of his group. He was the most vocal proponent of slaughtering Iraqi Shias, 60 per cent of the population, as well as American soldiers. But the civil war between Sunni and Shia now has its own momentum. Ethnic and sectarian cleansing is underway. It is not likely to be reversed.

Some of the winners and losers from the elimination of Zarqawi are obvious. He was the hero of foreign jihadi and salafi groups, Islamic fundamentalists intent on fighting holy war, who sent a stream of suicide bombers to Iraq. He was the symbolic link to the global jihad in which other resistance leaders in Iraq are less interested. The Jordanian government will be relieved because Zarqawi was behind the bomb attacks on Amman hotels last year which killed 60 people. There are other less obvious winners. The rest of the Iraqi resistance never liked being landed with Zarqawi as its symbolic leader. ‘He was an embarrassment to the resistance,’ Ghassan Attiyah, the Iraqi commentator, told me. ‘It is an opportunity for them to produce their own platform instead of letting Zarqawi take all the limelight.’

It may no longer be so obviously in American interests to demonise the Sunni insurgents. Ever since Zilmay Khalilzad arrived in Baghdad as the US ambassador at the end of last summer, he has been cultivating the Sunni Arabs and limiting Shia control of the state. Khalilzad played the central role in getting rid of the previous prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Baghdad conspiracy theorists suspect that, just as the US used Zarqawi to blacken the Sunni resistance as a whole, his departure will now make it easier for the US to do a deal with the insurgents.

The continuing US control over the government in the Green Zone was underlined when the killing of Zarqawi was announced by Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, from a podium where he was sandwiched between Khalilzad and General Casey, the top US military commander in Iraq. Privately, Maliki has been telling people that he doesn’t control his cabinet, because ministers are the appointees of their party or faction and cannot be fired, whatever they do. In other words, the new government, so praised by Tony Blair, is paralysed from the word go.

The US and the Iraqi government remain isolated in the Green Zone. Iraq is still breaking up. According to a leaked cable from the American embassy in Baghdad, some of its Iraqi staff are asking what plans have been made for their evacuation in the event of a US departure. They complain that in the last few months even the Iraqi soldiers guarding them have started to taunt them for working at the embassy. The cable concludes: ‘The central government, our staff says, is no longer relevant.’

The legend of Zarqawi was a bizarre joint production by the US, al-Qaida and the man himself. There was always more fiction than fact in the myth created around him. He was invented by the US to show a link between the international terrorists responsible for 9/11 and anti-American resistance in Iraq. As a result of his death, it will now be easier for the US to talk to the Sunni Arabs. But as opposition to the war mounts in the US, the American position in Iraq may be beyond salvage.

[*] Insurgent Iraq: Al-Zarqawi and the New Generation (Constable, 280 pp., £7.99, October 2005, 1 84529 254 5).