Military Kills Al-Zarqawi; Political Scene Filling In; Time for U.S. Focus on Exit

The news that Abu Masab al-Zarqawi and six aides and advisers were killed by a U.S. air strike last week is being hailed by some—again—as a “turning point” in the Iraq war.

By itself, al-Zarqawi’s demise does not directly affect the politics of Iraq. Nor does it guarantee any major shift in the intensity of the insurgency and the daily tally of fatalities. This is, of course, one possibility. But other factors, largely unpredictable, might well come into play.

One unknown is the impact on Iraqis who had joined al-Zarqawi of the latter’s recent video and audio tapes calling on Iraqi Sunnis to kill Iraqi Shi’ites even before attacking U.S. and coalition troops. As a Jordanian, al-Zarqawi was an outsider in Iraq. He was accepted because his opposition to the occupation coincided with the objectives of those nationalistic Iraqis who were fighting to rid their country of the invaders. But his call for civil war may have so undercut whatever support he had among Sunnis that he compromised a key tenet of insurgent warfare.

If al-Zarqawi had alienated Iraqis, the question becomes whether—if at all—the leadership of al-Qaida-in-Iraq will be passed to another or the organization will simply wither without its founder.

It is possible that al-Zarqawi will be seen as a martyr and thus become a new anti-U.S. rallying point for others, possibly even within (or infiltrating into) Iraq. However, because he was not fighting within his own country, he may leave no legacy. In this regard, one need only recall the Cuban revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who was killed in Bolivia in 1967 as he tried to organize a resistance movement. Che today is celebrated as a cultural icon of revolution as romance but not revolution in practice.

Among the earliest indicators as to the effect of al-Zarqawi’s death on events in Iraq could be the number of fatalities, particularly sectarian-based fatalities. The BBC notes that in the first five months of 2006, the Baghdad morgue has received 6,000 bodies, most with evidence of violence as the cause of death. May, with 1,398, was the worst month, and many officials believe that the actual count is much higher.

Another possible factor in how events play out in Iraq is the announcement by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that the Council of Representatives confirmed his selection of the Minister of Defense (a Sunni) and Minister of Interior (a Shi’ite). These appointments complete the “unity” cabinet after nearly seven months since the December 2005 elections. Assignment of these ministerial portfolios should, in turn, allow the government and parliament to turn to the task that will make or break the “new” Iraq: discussions to amend the Iraqi constitution as was promised to the Sunni minority.

As might be expected, U.S. authorities are pleased with yesterday’s events. But all should remember that the death of al-Zarqawi does not address the underlying problems in Iraq or provide the political solutions Iraq requires.

Just two days ago, U.S. media carried the following lead paragraph:

“Military commanders in the field in Iraq admit in private reports to the Pentagon the war “is lost” and that the U.S. military is unable to stem the mounting violence killing 1,000 Iraqi civilians a month.”

That is a long way of saying that “war is not the answer.”

Dan Smith is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at www.fpif.org), a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.