Why Zarqawi's death matters.

A wartime lexicon.
June 8 2006 2:00 PM

A Good Day's Work

Why Zarqawi's death matters.

Zarqawi. Click image to expand.
Zarqawi's death portrait

The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is excellent news in its own right and even more excellent if, as U.S. sources in Iraq are claiming, it resulted from information that derived from people who were or had been close to him. (And, if that claim is black propaganda, then it is clever black propaganda, which is also excellent news.)

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

It hasn't taken long for the rain to start falling on this parade. Nick Berg's father, a MoveOn type now running for Congress on the Green Party ticket, has already said that he blames President George Bush for the video-beheading of his own son (but of course) and mourned the passing of Zarqawi as he would the death of any man (but of course, again). The latest Atlantic has a brilliantly timed cover story by Mary Anne Weaver, which tends to the view that Zarqawi was essentially an American creation, but seems to undermine its own prominence by suggesting that, in addition to that, Zarqawi wasn't all that important.

Not so fast. Zarqawi contributed enormously to the wrecking of Iraq's experiment in democratic federalism. He was able to help ensure that the Iraqi people did not have one single day of respite between 35 years of war and fascism, and the last three-and-a-half years of misery and sabotage. He chose his targets with an almost diabolical cunning, destroying the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad (and murdering the heroic envoy Sérgio Vieira de Melo) almost before it could begin operations, and killing the leading Shiite Ayatollah Hakim outside his place of worship in Najaf. His decision to declare a jihad against the Shiite population in general, in a document of which Weaver (on no evidence) doubts the authenticity, has been the key innovation of the insurgency: applying lethal pressure to the most vulnerable aspect of Iraqi society. And it has had the intended effect, by undermining Grand Ayatollah Sistani and helping empower Iranian-backed Shiite death squads.

Not bad for a semiliterate goon and former jailhouse enforcer from a Bedouin clan in Jordan. There are two important questions concerning the terrible influence that he has been able to exert. The first is: How much state and para-state support did he enjoy? The second is: What was the nature of his relationship with Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida?

For the defeatists and pacifists, these are easy questions to answer. Colin Powell was wrong to identify Zarqawi, in his now-notorious U.N. address, as a link between the Saddam regime and the Bin-Ladenists. The man's power was created only by the coalition's intervention, and his connection to al Qaida was principally opportunistic. On this logic, the original mistake of the United States would have been to invade Afghanistan, thereby forcing Zarqawi to flee his camp outside Herat and repositioning him for a new combat elsewhere. Thus, fighting against al-Qaida is a mistake to begin with: It only encourages them.

I think that (for once) Colin Powell was on to something. I know that Kurdish intelligence had been warning the coalition for some time before the invasion that former Afghanistan combatants were making their way into Iraq, which they saw as the next best chance to take advantage of a state that was both "failed" and "rogue." One might add that Iraq under Saddam was not an easy country to enter or to leave, and that no decision on who was allowed in would be taken by a junior officer. Furthermore, the Zarqawi elements appear to have found it their duty to join with the Ansar al-Islam splinter group in Kurdistan, which for some reason thought it was the highest duty of jihad to murder Saddam Hussein's main enemies. But perhaps I have a suspicious mind.

We happen to know that the Baathist regime was recruiting and training foreign fighters and brigading them with the gruesome "Fedayeen Saddam." (This is incidentally a clue to what the successor regime in Iraq might have looked like as the Saddam-plus-sanctions state imploded and Baathism itself went into eclipse.) That bomb at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, for example, was no improvised explosive device. It was a huge charge of military-grade ordnance. Are we to believe that a newly arrived Bedouin Jordanian thug could so swiftly have scraped acquaintance with senior-level former Baathists? (The charges that destroyed the golden dome of the Shiites in Samarra were likewise rigged and set by professional military demolitionists.)

Zarqawi's relations with Bin Laden are a little more tortuous. Mary Anne Weaver shows fairly convincingly that the two men did not get along and were in some sense rivals for the leadership. That's natural enough: Religious fanatics are schismatic by definition. Zarqawi's visceral hatred of the Shiite heresy was unsettling even to some more mainstream Wahhabi types, as was his undue relish in making snuff videos. (How nice to know that these people do have their standards.) However, when Zarqawi sought the franchise to call his group "al-Qaida in Mesopotamia," he was granted it with only a few admonitions.

Most fascinating of all is the suggestion that Zarqawi was all along receiving help from the mullahs in Iran. He certainly seems to have been able to transit their territory (Herat is on the Iranian border with Afghanistan) and to replenish his forces by the same route. If this suggestive connection is proved, as Weaver suggests it will be, then we have the Shiite fundamentalists in Iran directly sponsoring the murderer of their co-religionists in Iraq. This in turn would mean that the Iranian mullahs stood convicted of the most brutish and cynical irresponsibility, in front of their own people, even as they try to distract attention from their covert nuclear ambitions. That would be worth knowing. And it would become rather difficult to argue that Bush had made them do it, though no doubt the attempt will be made.

If we had withdrawn from Iraq already, as the "peace" movement has been demanding, then one of the most revolting criminals of all time would have been able to claim that he forced us to do it. That would have catapulted Iraq into Stone Age collapse and instated a psychopathic killer as the greatest Muslim soldier since Saladin. As it is, the man is ignominiously dead and his dirty connections a lot closer to being fully exposed. This seems like a good day's work to me.

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