For once, a tactically insignificant action in Iraq – an airstrike near the town of Hibhib, about 50 miles from Baghdad -will give the United States and its Iraqi allies a strategically and politically important result. Yes, the conflict will continue and one should even expect the insurgents to try to mount an increased level of attacks simply to show they’re still out there, but this is a big one, on the scale of the capture of Saddam or the raids that killed his sons Uday and Qusay. Zarqawi was nothing if not a charismatic leader.
Zarqawi was not simply the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq but the symbol of Iraq’s – and America’s – post-invasion nightmare. Zarqawi’s desire to foment a sectarian civil war played upon the signal weakness of the Iraqis’ own attempts to create a new and more legitimate state: the sectarian divides among Shi’a, Sunni, Kurd and others. And finally, as revealed in his famous correspondence with al Qaeda number two Ayman al Zawahiri, Zarqawi reflected an even more extreme wing within the movement. With his spectacular beheadings of American and other hostages, Zarqawi became, for a time, the most celebrated radical in the world.
As reports of Zarqawi’s killing spread across Iraq, it was met with great relief; early news stories indicated that in the Shi’a south, particularly in Basra where fighting amongst militias has lately flared, the news was especially welcome. And, not insignificantly, the Iraqi parliament seized the moment to approve the selections of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al Maliki for defense and interior ministry, filling the last – and most controversial and contested – posts in the new Iraqi government.
What will be most interesting to watch is the political and media reaction in the United States. The first analysis on National Public Radio, for example, allowed that Zarqawi’s death was a good thing but the next talking point was that the insurgent structures remained. It was only a "propaganda victory," according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies – never mind that propaganda victories might be the most decisive ones. President Bush’s initial formal statement was restrained: "Now Zarqawi has met his end and this violent man will never murder again." It’s unclear whether the killing of Zarqawi will convince Americans that the war in Iraq can be won and is worth "staying the course," or that this provides a punctuation mark for drawdown and withdrawal.
It’s also worth wondering what we will do when me meet our next Zarqawi, in Iraq or elsewhere, or whether, in time, he becomes a romantic, revolutionary figure, a la Che Guevarra, not reviled but celebrated for his excessive violence and cruelty. The "Zarqawi Factor" has been an important element in the story of Iraq reconstruction, but one that helped Iraqis make the difficult commitments to their own collective future and helped to solidify the Iraqi-American alliance.
The death of Abu Musab al Zarqawi is a milestone on the road to victory.