There is no doubt that the Iraqi government and US forces in Iraq have scored a major political and propaganda victory by killing Abu Musab al Zarqawi. What is less clear that this victory will have a major impact over time. Its lasting importance depends on two things. The overall resilience of the insurgency in Iraq and how well the new Iraqi government can follow up with actions that a build a national consensus and defeat and undermine all the elements of the insurgency.
Regardless of how decisively the government acts, Zarqawi's death will have a positive impact. There is no other figure in the insurgency that has captured Iraq and the world's attention. Most other leaders are nearly faceless and many are unknown. At the same time, Zarqawi's extremism has sometimes been a liability. His cruelty and calls for Jihad against Shi'ites, his willingness to attack civilians and fellow Muslims, has helped push at least some Sunnis away from the insurgency, divided even some elements of Al Qa'ida in Mesopotamia, and been a partial liability. There is at least some risk that his death will allow the surviving insurgency to broaden its base.
But, the past tendency to demonize both Zarqawi and Al Qa'ida in Mesopotamia has been dangerously misleading. The insurgency is far more complex and robust.
The level of damage Zarqawi's death will do to Al Qa'ida in Mesopotamia is almost impossible to predict. Reports of deep divisions in Al Qa'ida sometimes seem to owe as much to wishful thinking and disinformation as fact.
The US has, however, scored increasing success against the overall structure of organization over the last year, and its intelligence and targeting capabilities to have improved significantly. How much of this comes from new intelligence methods and how much comes from Iraqi informers inside and outside Al Qa'ida is hard to determine. The US emphasizes Iraqi sources but this may be to protect intelligence sources and methods and partly political warfare.
Much also depends on just how much information the US captured that reveals Al Qa'ida's overall organization and cell structure. ABC reporting indicates that US and Iraqi forces conducted 17 simultaneous raids around Baghdad after they confirmed that Zarqawi was death and seized a "treasure trove" of information about Al Qa'ida in Mesopotamia. These had been a massive surveillance and targeting effort underway to find Zarqawi, and they could immediately deploy the resource devoted to go after secondary targets.
It still, however, is far from clear that they can attack the entire organization. If much does survive, it can take on a less extreme and more Iraqi character, and Zarqawi's death may allow him to treated as a martyr and even be spun into a kind of "victory."
The bulk of Al Qa'ida in Mesopotamia is now Iraqi, not foreign, and it has developed a highly compartmented organization, with regional emirs and cells with a high degree of isolation and security and a high degree of independence. The end result might be the most of Al Qaida survives, and even "moderates" in ways that expand its reach in ways Zarqawi's extremism prevented.
One thing is clear, most of the insurgency will not be affecting because Al Qaida is a highly visible and extraordinarily brutal cadre within a much larger group of different insurgent movements. Experts differ on how much insurgent groups compete or coordinate, and how different their goals are. The groups that make the most use of public statements and the Internet do tend to advance common themes. They at least claim to be Sunni Islamist in character, and insurgent web sites do reflect a shift towards the use of more religious rhetoric and themes over time. These groups will not be directly affected by Zarqawi's death and could be strengthened if his death weakens Al Qa'ida and the government does not take the steps outlined earlier.