The Zarqawi Mythology

One caveat about the Zarqawi killing. For a while now, various sources knowledgeable about Iraq have warned me not to take some claims made about Zarqawi too seriously. He was never a close or comfortable ally with Osama bin Laden, and the Atlantic profile has a fascinating account of the two monsters' first meeting:

As they sat facing each other across the receiving room, a former Israeli intelligence official told me, 'it was loathing at first sight.'

According to several different accounts of the meeting, bin Laden distrusted and disliked al-Zarqawi immediately. He suspected that the group of Jordanian prisoners with whom al-Zarqawi had been granted amnesty earlier in the year had been infiltrated by Jordanian intelligence; something similar had occurred not long before with a Jordanian jihadist cell that had come to Afghanistan. Bin Laden also disliked al-Zarqawi's swagger and the green tattoos on his left hand, which he reportedly considered un-Islamic. Al-Zarqawi came across to bin Laden as aggressively ambitious, abrasive, and overbearing. His hatred of Shiites also seemed to bin Laden to be potentially divisive—which, of course, it was.

Zarqawi made a name for himself among the Sunni insurgency in the first few months after the liberation because of the sheer brutality and sectarian nature of his religiously-inspired violence. But he wasn't the central figure in that insurgency, and had recently alienated many. His former mentor broke with him after the hotel bombings in Jordan. The Bush administration often hyped Zarqawi, many say, in order to retain the notion that al Qaeda and Saddam were joined at the hip, and to connect the struggle in Iraq more directly with 9/11 in the eyes of the American public. But the truth was more complicated than that. Again from Mary Ann Weaver's profile:

"Even then — and even more so now — Zarqawi was not the main force in the insurgency," the former Jordanian intelligence official, who has studied al-Zarqawi for a decade, told me. "To establish himself, he carried out the Muhammad Hakim operation, and the attack against the UN. Both of them gained a lot of support for him—with the tribes, with Saddam’s army and other remnants of his regime. They made Zarqawi the symbol of the resistance in Iraq, but not the leader. And he never has been."

He continued, "The Americans have been patently stupid in all of this. They’ve blown Zarqawi so out of proportion that, of course, his prestige has grown. And as a result, sleeper cells from all over Europe are coming to join him now."

They're still there. Perhaps the biggest reason to rejoice at his demise is not that he represented the core of the Sunni insurgency, but that his strategy of fomenting sectarian mayhem helped unleash the most destructive force in the nascent state. Maybe his removal will help abate that force. Or maybe it now has a momentum all its own. We'll see.