Zarqawi’s death a turning point in Iraq?

The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi last Wednesday has the potential to be a major turning point in Iraq for both the civilian government, and for the coalition forces. Zarqawi was the so-called ‘mastermind’ of the insurgency that has been fighting in Iraq since the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.  Zarqawi’s group, the Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, was part of the Al-Qaeda ‘network of networks.’ Prior to this, there is a school of thought that says that the two groups were rivals of a sort, with Zarqawi being closer to Saddam’s regime. However, just as with Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, no link has ever been proved between Zarqawi and the deposed dictator.


In October 2004, Zarqawi declared that his group was, for all intents and purposes, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, a statement backed up by Osama Bin Laden later that year in an audio tape broadcast on the Al-Jazeera TV network.


Bin Laden and Zarqawi are supposed to have first met in Afghanistan in 1989; both men arrived to fight the Russians, but by this stage of what would turn into a civil war, fighting was winding down for a time. It would of course re-ignite throughout the 90’s as the Northern Alliance and the Taliban faced each other. Instead of fighting, Zarqawi is supposed to have worked for an Islamist newsletter; similarly, Osama Bin Laden is alleged to have raised funds, spent time in Pakistan/Sudan/Saudi Arabia or England, depending on who you read.


What is certain is that Zarqawi had harboured a grudge against the ‘West’, against the Jordanian monarchy, against Israel, against the Saudi monarchy, and against any other group or country that did not support his vision for the restoration of the Caliphate. Zarqawi adhered to the Salafi school of Islam, sometimes identified with Wahhabism; this is a very strict, pure form of Islam, and an offshoot of Sunni Islam. It holds that Islam, as created by Muhammad, was perfect, and that ‘deviations’ such as Shia Islam, and Sufism, are corruptions of Islam.


This strict interpretation of Islam is what has formed the basis for the anger of men such as Zarqawi; that is not to say that all Salafi Muslims believe, practise and live as Zarqawi did, rather that for men such as Zarqawi, deviation from purity and degeneration in morals was a source of much anger, and a cause for Jihad.


Now that Zarqawi is dead, some might assume that the battle against the insurgency is all but won. This would be wonderful for the men, women and children of Iraq trying to go about their daily business, but it is not necessarily so. Zarqawi tapped into anger, rage and resentment that already existed at the presence of coalition forces. That anger will still be there, and the men (and women) who followed him will not disappear.


What has changed significantly are two things. Firstly, at an operational and planning level, the death of Zarqawi means that much capacity has been lost. It has been suggested over the last couple of years that Zarqawi was the true ‘brains’ behind Al-Qaeda, and that Osama simply provided funding and a figurehead. Whether that much is true is uncertain, but Zarqawi was undoubtedly fundamental to operations in Iraq.


Secondly, though Osama Bin Laden is in many respects the ‘face’ of Al-Qaeda, Zarqawi was also a figurehead. The blow to the confidence of the insurgents in Iraq will be massive – perhaps greater than the blow Saddam supporters suffered when he was captured. How the insurgency will function without Zarqawi remains to be seen. What is certain is that Zarqawi’s death is the best news the coalition has had in a long time, and that the best chance for growing peace in Iraq may have just been presented.



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