Fears killing may lead to retaliatory attacks


IRAQ: There were fears last night in Iraq that the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most wanted Sunni Muslim militant in the country, could lead to a spike in attacks on US and Iraqi targets by his faction in retaliation for his assassination. Operations by Iraqi nationalist and fundamentalist groups will continue.

His demise was announced yesterday by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who said Zarqawi and several lieutenants had been killed in a US air strike. Zarqawi is credited with scores of bombings of civilian and military targets, kidnappings and beheadings of Iraqis and foreigners.

Washington placed a bounty of $25 million on his head but has, so far, not revealed whether anyone will collect the reward, although there have been hints that Zarqawi's location was pinpointed by members of his own organisation or the public.

Zarqawi's group, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, confirmed his death but said it would not affect its operations. The initial response of the group may have been a bombing at an open air market in a Shia district of Baghdad where 19 people were killed. At least another 12 died in other bombings in the city. To demonstrate that their leader's absence will not diminish their zeal or ability to strike, Zarqawi's followers may redouble their efforts to kill and maim US and Iraqi troops.

Buoyed by the elimination of Zarqawi, Iraq's parliament confirmed the nominees of Mr Maliki to three key posts which were not filled when he presented his cabinet three weeks ago because of squabbling in the Shia bloc over the interior portfolio. Shia politician Jawad Bulani, a former member of Iraq's interim governing council, was named interior minister; a Sunni officer, Lieut Gen Abdel Qader Jassem, was given defence; and a member of Mr Maliki's own Dawa party, Shirwan al-Wali, was chosen to head the national security ministry.

Although Mr Maliki sought to court the Sunni bloc ahead of the assembly session by releasing nearly 600 prisoners on Wednesday and promising to free another 2,000, Sunni lawmakers criticised his choice of Gen Jassem because he was part of the army command when the US-led assault on Falluja took place in November 2004.

Sunnis have never forgiven the US or its Iraqi allies for this operation, which drove the town's inhabitants from their homes and destroyed most of its infrastructure. Sunnis were, however, quite happy to learn of the demise of Zarqawi, whose operations they felt shamed their community.

Although al-Qaeda in Iraq has been considered public enemy number one by the US, it has never been a mainstream Iraqi resistance organisation and, with no more than 10 per cent of the total resistance fighters, it remains one of the smaller factions opposing the US occupation.

It rose to prominence a few months after the war by carrying out high-profile bombings against key targets, including the Jordanian embassy and UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003.

Zarqawi's original recruits were foreign fighters - Algerians, Saudis, Jordanians, and Egyptians - who had experience in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya.

However, over the past 18 months the group has transformed itself into a largely indigenous Iraqi faction.

It is now led by Iraqis and most of its fighters are Iraqis. Nevertheless, its brutality and cruelty have alienated nationalist and fundamentalist resistance groups as well as the majority of Iraqi civilians. This prompted Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy leader of al-Qaeda, the parent movement of Zarqawi's group, to criticise its tactics.

Furthermore, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia has been left behind by events. On the one hand, it is no longer in the vanguard of the armed struggle against the US occupation and its Iraqi allies; this role has been assumed by Iraqi Sunni fundamentalist factions. On the other hand, the insurgency has been overtaken by communal conflict. Following the bombing of a Shia shrine at Samarra in February, Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni militias and sectarian units of the Iraqi armed forces and police have been mounting attacks on members of other sects and carrying out cleansing operations.

While the removal of Zarqawi is undoubtedly a politico-military and propaganda coup, it deprives the Bush administration of its main foreign terrorist enemy in Iraq. Since Zarqawi was a Jordanian who was initially followed by Arab jihadists rather than Iraqi resistance fighters, the US was able to create the illusion that armed opposition to the occupation was non-Iraqi.

Consequently, Zarqawi's removal will deprive the Bush administra- tion of a convenient explanation for continuing anti-US violence in Iraq.