LONDON — The convenient emergence and sudden disappearance of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi signals the end of an era. Although Washington and London insist on telling us that the “good news” of his death doesn’t necessary mean an end to Iraq’s bloodshed, the giddiness in British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s voice has profusely conveyed the greater hope of Iraq’s occupiers.
As a young man, al-Zarqawi joined Afghanistan’s mujahedin militias against the Russian occupation in the 1980s. Following the Russian defeat, he returned to Jordan and, like other returnees to various Arab countries, clashed with his government and was imprisoned on charges of conspiracy to effect regime change. Amnesty by the late King Hussein set him free after he spent seven years in prison.
Certainty over the man’s life, death and legacy ends here. The rest, concluded with his dramatic demise, is shrouded in inconsistencies, state propaganda and half-truths.
It has been argued that al-Zarqawi took serious issue with al-Qaida’s ideology and tactics. Most accounts seem to suggest an initial conflict between the two groups, a claim further validated by an alleged letter intercepted by the U.S. military in Iraq in 2005. In the letter, addressed to al-Zarqawi, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri warned al-Zarqawi against carrying out more sectarian attacks against the Shiite population, saying such violence was eroding support for al-Qaida.
By unveiling the letter, the Americans were hoping to establish their early claim that al-Zarqawi was al-Qaida’s man in Iraq. Once again, both al-Qaida and al-Zarqawi audio recordings popped up almost simultaneously to suggest that such an alliance was struck.
Again, if true, this further undermines earlier allegations made by top U.S. officials that such an alliance had always existed. Murky “evidence” presented by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations in February 2003 was the first to propose such a connection. Powell concluded — in what was later widely recognized as “hyped” if not altogether concocted U.S. intelligence aimed at justifying the war and invasion of Iraq — that al-Zarqawi was an associate of bin Laden who had sought refuge in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Powell’s case for war had omitted as seemingly immaterial the reports that al-Zarqawi left Afghanistan in 2001 to join Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish Sunni group fighting its own battles in northern Iraq. Al-Zarqawi apparently chose northern Iraq to avoid an imminent clash with Iraq’s security forces under Saddam. (Secularist Saddam had historically clamped down on Islamic activists.) Linking al-Qaida to al-Zarqawi, and then to Saddam’s government, was one of the most forceful arguments that the U.S. administration used to sell their unwarranted war to the public.
In retrospect, such an argument was yet another lie, like others, and proved to be a concoction of the ever lucid imagination of U.S. neoconservative zealots and their media allies.
The plot thickened when al-Zarqawi — the once petty criminal of al-Zarqa town in Jordan — made his official entry on the Iraqi scene, turning almost immediately into a mythical menace, along with a few armed men battling two of the world’s greatest forces: beheading foreigners, slaying Iraqi police recruits, assassinating government officials, blowing up religious shrines, attacking worshippers at Shiite festivals, detonating up to three intricate car bombs at a time, and always managing to escape unscathed at the last minute.
One of those miraculous escapes reportedly took place in Fallujah. Only after destroying most of the town and butchering thousands of people did Iraqi police, at the behest of their U.S. commanders, declare that al-Zarqawi managed to evade capture just minutes before a raid on his hideout.
Al-Zarqawi was the leader of “Tawhid wal Jihad,” an Islamic military group intended specifically to battle Americans in Iraq. The group officially merged with bin Laden’s in 2004. Bin Laden named him “Prince of al-Qaida in the Land of the Two Rivers.” The world’s most active terrorist and the world’s most notorious terrorist group joined hands in a relentless war against “Shiites, Christians and Jews,” as simplistically worded by a BBC International world-affairs analyst.
Al-Zarqawi or his myth, whether incidentally or by design, has perhaps served as the greatest propaganda tool ever used by the Americans. He successfully alienated many antiwar camps throughout the world, notwithstanding the many Arabs and Sunni Muslims who rightfully believed that his tactics were savage, un-Islamic and self-defeating. He gave rise to the widely circulated argument that the U.S. war is one between the forces of civilization and the forces of darkness. An Arab Muslim male flawlessly represented the latter.
Al-Zarqawi gave substance to the shaky allegation that the source of instability in Iraq was the presence of foreign Arab fighters, a condition that helped sever inner-Arab ties and focused pressure on Syria, which was accused of allowing fighters to move across its borders. He helped widen the chasm between Iraqi forces and sects, even those who believe in the legitimacy of their struggle against occupation.
While his death may indeed signal an end to the various pretexts used and abused by the U.S. administration, military and media, his absence nonetheless will have its rewards, however temporary. One was the very rare opportunity in which U.S. President George W. Bush, Blair and U.S.-installed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were able to declare, simultaneously, the full formation of the “first democratic Iraqi government” and the death of a menace.
As Western TV analysts happily jumped at the chance to analyze the link between the two declarations, U.S. military generals showed journalists a video of how al-Zarqawi was blown up. Meanwhile, Iraqi police, firing their guns, did a little dance for the cameras. The oil market stabilized a bit and sighs of relief poured in from various world capitals.
Al-Zarqawi, or his myth, has apparently outlived his usefulness. The Iraq conflict seems to be going in a new direction, its success or failure is unknown. A new media menace will have to be concocted to suit new U.S. policies in Iraq and around the region. Al-Zarqawi is dead; another al-Zarqawi is being born.
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