Make no mistake: The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a big deal, and for reasons beyond justice, vengeance, and crossing out another top mug on the al-Qaida most-wanted chart.
Just how big a deal it is will depend on what the new Iraqi government does as a follow-up—or, more to the point, what it can do, and there are still severe limits on that.
Still, one piece of good news is that there is a new Iraqi government, and this seems to be in part a direct outcome of the airstrike that hit Zarqawi and his entourage. Right after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the news, the parliament confirmed his appointments to the Cabinet's final three, most crucial slots: the defense, interior, and national-security ministries. The nominees—a Sunni and two Shiites, respectively—had been subjects of rancorous sectarian debate, which ended instantly upon the demise of Iraqi sectarianism's chief instigator.
Does this mean that national unity lies around the corner? That's doubtful, and not just because Iraq has turned too many illusory corners these past three years for anyone to take seriously the sighting of another. Zarqawi exacerbated ethnic tensions and helped ignite them in mass violence; triggering a civil war was central to his strategy. But he didn't create those tensions, nor are they likely to vanish along with him. Fires rage on, regardless of what happens to the man who lit the match.
As for future fires, there's no shortage of matches in Iraq these days—or of people willing to light them.
For a long time now, analysts and several officials have noted that jihadist followers of Zarqawi's comprise a small segment of the insurgency but commit a larger percentage of the most violent acts. Nobody has been precise about how the numbers break down. I doubt if anyone really knows. At the very least, we may be about to find out.
The dismaying point here is that the violence won't end; President Bush himself made this clear in his public statement this morning. The vast majority of insurgents have claims and ambitions that have nothing to do with Zarqawi's. Those who are his disciples will probably set off some bombs over the next several days, if just to demonstrate that they can operate without him.
But can they remain a potent force without their leader for the next weeks, months, and years? Again, I don't think anybody knows. His group, al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, has announced it has selected a new "prince" to replace him, though it seems unlikely that anyone short of Osama Bin Laden himself could match Zarqawi's organizational talents or charisma.
Does it matter if no jihadist leader emerges? In one sense, probably not. Al-Qaida International has long devolved from a centralized network to a scattered franchise, still capable of terrorism and harder to track down. In another sense, though, Zarqawi's absence might make a difference, especially in Iraq. His underlings' instant announcement of a replacement—just as mighty, the message promised—may indicate that they know how desperately such a figurehead is needed.
There were already signs that Zarqawi's operation was unraveling. Many Sunni Arabs bitterly protested his strategy of splitting Iraq's Muslims, especially his attacks on Shiites and their mosques. Juan Cole reports that, just this week, some of Zarqawi's fighters mounted an assault on a Fallujah police station—and were staved off by young Sunni tribesmen. Initial accounts of Zarqawi's death reported that "area residents" gave his location away. Later stories said the information came from insiders. Either way, it's good news. The former would mean that, for at least some Iraqis, their impatience with Zarqawi's violence outweighed their fear of his wrath. The latter would mean that his organization is about to splinter still further—with, ultimately, the same result.
A year ago, officials of what was then Iraq's interim government declared a strategy of dividing the foreign jihadists and the nationalist insurgents—isolating the former, co-opting the latter. Might Zarqawi's death give even a glimmer of hope that this strategy might be revived?
This seems to be what Maliki is hoping for. The completion of his government was a necessary first step. His decision to release hundreds of mainly Sunni detainees, a process that began earlier this week, is clearly meant as another step toward reconciliation. Next on the list, if this strategy has the slightest chance of success, would have to be: stopping the Shiite militias' death squads (significantly, the new Shiite interior minister has no militia ties), amending the Iraqi Constitution to give Sunni regions a more equitable share of oil revenue, further (though judicious) de-Baathification throughout the government—in short, giving all political parties (and the militias or insurgents that support them) a stake in the system.
Above all, Maliki seems to be hoping to demonstrate basic competence, to perform a string of successes that might inspire confidence. The nabbing of Zarqawi marks one such success.
Vali Nasr, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of The Shia Revival, said this morning that he sees "a window of opportunity," though he added, "I don't know how open it is, or for how long."
If there's any legitimacy to the new Iraqi government, now's the time it might take traction. If it can't take hold now, it might not ever.