Understanding Zarqawi's demise.

Understanding Zarqawi's demise.

Understanding Zarqawi's demise.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
June 9 2006 4:15 AM

Better Off'd

The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox, and  New York Times all lead with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's demise. The Los Angeles Times, which actually stopped its presses early yesterday morning and caught the news in some of its papers, also leads with Zarqawi but focuses a bit more on the follow-up. USA Todaygives big play to Zarqawi, but the traditional lead spot goes to the FDA approving a vaccine that gives protection against cervical cancers. The vaccine works by giving immunity against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus. Some religious conservatives have opposed giving it as part of routine vaccinations to girls.

Zarqawi was hit by two 500-pound bombs from F-16s. He was ID'd by fingerprints, scars, and tattoos. DNA samples are also being tested.

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Everybody suggests that squealers were key in the operation. A captured Zarqawi acolyte reportedly told the military that the chubby terrorist hung out with a spiritual adviser, whom the military then began tracking. That got them close. And then, reportedly, at least one other turncoat sealed the deal. "We have a guy on the inside who led us directly to Zarqawi," one "Pentagon official" told the NYT.

Of course, it happens to be in the military's interest to make jihadists think an insider flipped—after all, that might foment internal bloodletting. A "senior Iraqi intelligence official" is rooting for the latter: "His close circle, his organization, will not agree on one of them to succeed him. There is the prospect for division."

It's impossible to know what the fallout will be. A real possibility is that there won't be much. In a particularly sharp piece, the LAT explains that while the insurgency is murky and ever-morphing, Zarqawi's group is not only a small part of the overall insurgency; it's "just one of several gangs" of hardcore jihadists and foreigners.

The Atlantic just published a long, revealing profile on Zarqawi, and it also makes that point. Big attacks "made Zarqawi the symbol of the resistance in Iraq, but not the leader," said one former Jordanian intel official. "The Americans have been patently stupid in all of this. They've blown Zarqawi so out of proportion." (This TPer made a similar argument two summers ago.)

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But as a symbol or not, Zarqawi seems to have done a heckuva job fanning sectarian flames. He's not around anymore, but then the sectarianism seems to be on autopilot. "His work over the last three years has not gone in vain," one Iraqi official told the NYT.

The NYT mentions that some Sunni parties welcomed Zarqawi's death. But the LAT and WP also interviewed Sunnis in the street who had a different perspective. "Zarqawi was the one who put a limit to Shiite influence and all the killing of Sunnis," said one man. "It is a big loss." The Palestinian Hamas also sent a condolence statement, "With hearts full of faith, Hamas commends brother-fighter Abu Musab  ..."

But Zarqawi's killing does create an opportunity. As Slate's Fred Kaplan writes, it all "depends on what the new Iraqi government does as a follow-up—or, more to the point, what it can do."

Only the Journal gives significant Page One space to Iraq finally completing its government. The WSJ gives it nearly equal play to Zarqawi and suggests it will prove to be the "more important accomplishment in quelling Iraq's strife."

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A few minutes after Zarqawi's death was announced, Iraq's Parliament named aSunni and two Shiites to fill the much-fought-over top three security posts. The new interior minister is a Shiite but, unlike his predecessor, isn't affiliated with a militia. And in what might be evidence of a changing dynamic, the NYT mentions that the new defense minister—a Sunni and former military officer—had been considered a no-go just last week.

In a Post op-ed, Prime Minister Maliki lays out his agenda and says he'll push to disarm militias. He doesn't mention another key Sunni demand: stop de-Baathification.

Everybody mentions that an Israeli airstrike killed a top security official in the Hamas-led government. Israel said it was targeting a terrorist camp and not the official directly. Whatever the case, the WP says he was the "most senior Palestinian guerrilla" killed "in years."

For the second day in a row, Senate Republican leaders tried to go with an oldie-but-a-goodie and were shot down. This time it was a—so far, failed—bid to repeal the estate tax.

Those classy gold frames around the Zarqawi death photos were pretty weird. Weirder still: The Post spent 1,000 words pondering them.

Care for a tinfoil hat? From far down in the Post:

Police and witnesses at the scene told a Washington Post special correspondent that Zarqawi was only wounded in the attack and was whisked away by U.S. forces, dying in their custody. [A military spokesman] said he was killed instantly.

Eric Umansky, previously the "Today's Papers" columnist for Slate, is currently a Gordon Grey Fellow at Columbia University's School of Journalism.