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Good news, but not a final blow

Published June 9, 2006

In Iraq, a place where even one piece of good news is hard to come by, the past 48 hours have produced three hugely positive developments:

nA U.S. airstrike killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq and one of the world's most wanted terrorists.

nThe military located Zarqawi's hideout because of a tip from one of his own people, a sign that at least some insurgents were unhappy with his leadership and even sick of the carnage and chaos that has befallen their country.

nIraq's Parliament approved new ministers for the key departments of defense and the interior, completing a permanent government after months of embarrassing wrangling and delays.

Taken together, the three developments are "a great boost for President Bush and a bit of a jump start for the newly formed Iraqi Cabinet," says James Denselow, an expert on the country at London's Chatham House.

But Iraq remains so mired in problems that Zarqawi's demise is unlikely to have much immediate effect.

"This is a really significant and positive event that might begin to take some of the steam out of this very vicious sectarian incitement," says Michael Hudson, a professor of Arab studies at Georgetown University.

"But it's been going on so long, so many people have been severely damaged and there so many scores to be settled that things aren't going to be easy for the Iraq government, with or without U.S. military assistance."

Tensions among Iraq's three main groups - Kurds, Shiite and Sunni - are nothing new, but they have come to a dangerous head since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The failure to secure Iraq's borders and stop looting after the invasion created a security vacuum in which insurgency has flourished.

The Jordanian-born Zarqawi and thousands of other foreign fighters flocked to Iraq, determined to drive out the U.S. "infidels" and restore Sunnis to the power they held during Hussein's era. Zarqawi shrewdly aligned himself with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization and exploited the friction between Sunnis and Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the population and were severely repressed under Hussein's regime.

The result has been a nightmare of tit-for-tat killings that the Iraqi government and coalition troops seem powerless to stop. Millions of Iraqis have sought protection from sectarian militias, whose members have infiltrated the regular Iraqi army and police forces.

The sectarian violence - culminating in the Zarqawi-engineered bombing of a Shiite shrine in January - poses the biggest threat to Iraq's continued existence as a nation, let alone the peaceful, democratic nation the White House once envisioned.

Although Zarqawi undoubtedly was responsible for much of the carnage, it would be a mistake to think that his removal will end decades of hatred.

"The reality is that he was not head of an extremely organized group, but the titular head of al-Qaida in Iraq, and that is only one string of the insurgency," Denselow says.

Even Zarqawi's admirers in Jordan expressed surprise that a man they knew as shy and nearly illiterate could emerge as such a powerful leader. Denselow says the U.S. government contributed to Zarqawi's larger-than-life image by putting a $25-million bounty on his head, the same as for bin Laden himself.

More recently, the American military took a different tack, releasing a video in which a pudgy, sneaker-clad Zarqawi struggled to fire a machine gun. That unflattering portrayal could have contributed to the growing dissatisfaction with him among his own ranks.

Even before the video emerged, Zarqawi reportedly had alienated some of his sympathizers with the bombing of three hotels in Jordan last year. Most of the 60 victims - including several members of a wedding party - were Sunnis and Jordanians.

With Zarqawi out of the picture, Iraq's new prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, still has an uphill fight to make good on his pledge to demilitarize the militias and end sectarian strife.

The magnitude of the task is illustrated in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city and a place once thought to be a model of how well Iraq might turn out. Its largely Shiite population initially welcomed coalition forces, especially the British troops who were seen as friendlier and less authoritarian than their American counterparts.

But the city of 2-million is now controlled by militias loyal to various factions, including that of a radical cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. Killings and kidnappings are daily occurrences. Christian-owned liquor stores have been bombed, and women cannot appear in public unless shrouded in black. The British are routinely attacked.

And like other parts of Iraq, Basra continues to suffer from severe shortages of electricity and potable water as reconstruction grinds to a near-halt because of the insurgency. Much of the oil the Bush administration was counting on to pay for Iraq's rebuilding has been siphoned off by smugglers or burned up by saboteurs.

Maliki, the new prime minister, flew to Basra last week in an attempt to assert government control over the increasingly anarchic city. He is considered more proactive and forceful than his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who was widely viewed as a tool of al-Sadr.

Still, as Hudson of Georgetown puts it, dealing with Iraq today "is kind of like turning around an oil tanker."

Susan Martin can be contacted at

Iraq's insurgency

A look at some of Iraq's insurgent groups:

AL-QAIDA IN IRAQ: Formerly headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed Wednesday. Formerly called Monotheism and Jihad, and al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, allied itself with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida in 2004. Has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks and the kidnappings and beheadings of foreigners.

ISLAMIC ARMY IN IRAQ: A Sunni group formed after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 to fight U.S.-led forces and Iraqi troops. At first allied with al-Qaida but later believed to have distanced itself from the terror network. Islamic and nationalist ideology.

ANSAR AL-SUNNAH ARMY: Sunni militant group. Has claimed responsibility for numerous suicide attacks, the August 2004 execution of 12 Nepalese hostages and a December 2004 explosion at a U.S. military mess hall in Mosul that killed 22 people. Believed to have been an offshoot of another group, Ansar Al-Islam.

ANSAR AL-ISLAM: Made up mostly of Kurds with close links to al-Qaida. Blamed for a number of attacks, including assassination attempts against Kurdish officials.

1920 REVOLUTION BRIGADES/IRAQI NATIONAL ISLAMIC RESISTANCE: Emerged in the "Sunni triangle" in mid 2003. Has claimed responsibility for attacking U.S. troops, including the downing of two helicopters in 2004. Its name refers to Iraq's historical fight against British colonialism.

MUJAHEDEEN SHURA COUNCIL: Composed of eight insurgent groups, including al-Qaida in Iraq. Has claimed responsibility for many attacks, including 14 in city of Ramadi in May.- Associated Press

[Last modified June 9, 2006, 06:36:02]

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