-- Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi is dead but his legacy is alive and kicking.
In Jordan, the country of his birth, the Hashemite monarchy has heaved a big sigh of relief over the demise of its nemesis. Zarqawi staged numerous attacks in the Kingdom, most lethally last November 9, when coordinated suicide attacks on three hotels left 60 people dead and many more wounded, Jordan's 9/11. The man from Zarqa, whose real name was Ahmed Fadhil al-Khalaileh, seemed to harbor a personal grudge against the regime in whose dungeons he spent several years in the 1990s.
Today he has numerous followers in Jordan who share with him his puritanical Salafi ideology and fervent opposition to the U.S. and Western presence in the Middle East, as well as his intense hatred of the regime. Jordan's pervasive security apparatus keeps close tabs on these people, and this has limited the number of successful attacks. All the same, Zarqawi's exploits both in Jordan and Iraq have earned him a surprising popularity among ordinary Jordanians, who are deeply upset about U.S. policies in the region, in particular its support of the Israeli occupation and its war in Iraq. From their midst may arise future Zarqawis eager to fill his shoes and make their mark as folk heroes battling far superior U.S. and Israeli forces.
In Iraq, Zarqawi's footprint is probably even larger. He had three years to roam about almost unhindered in a permissive environment that enabled him to recruit followers and stage spectacular suicide attacks and grisly beheadings of hostages. By targeting in particular Shiite civilians through car bombings in market places and mosques he helped unleash a virulent sectarian dynamic that was entirely new to Iraq.
But his was an errant campaign. It came under criticism, sometimes public, sometimes muted, from Iraqi insurgents of a nationalist persuasion and even from within his own jihadi corner. His critics felt that alienating Shiites in a country like Iraq where some 60 percent of the population are Shiites was counter-productive, a major tactical error in the battle to defeat the occupying armies.
Despite such criticisms, Zarqawi was able to thrive. This was because he reportedly had deep pockets and was willing to finance the operations by insurgent groups that did not share his ideology, targets or methods. It was also because he was able to exploit the profound disaffection that courses through the country's Sunni Arab community. They cheered his bloody deeds simply because these served to mar the political victories, an election held on schedule, a constitution signed on time, that Washington and the new Iraqi government could claim as the political transition unfolded.
Zarqawi's demise may, at least temporarily, lower the dangerous sectarian rhetoric that he has evinced in his recorded speeches and reduce the number of openly sectarian attacks. Yet it would be premature to declare that a page has been turned in Iraq's low-intensity conflict that is slowly escalating into civil war. Three years after the removal of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime, a deeply rooted insurgency has succeeded in putting both the U.S. and the elected government on the defensive. In the absence of a strong state-controlled security apparatus, armed groups and militias have taken over essential policing roles, but in pursuing partisan agendas they have contributed to the chaos rather than reducing it.
A new government is now, finally, in place. It is a government of national unity, based on a broad array of political groups that all won seats in the December 2005 elections. This is an important step forward. But such a government will face an enormous challenge in governing effectively and delivering to Iraqis the things they want most: security, essential services, and jobs. More likely, the new government will be tied down for an extended period as the national assembly proceeds with the critical task of revising the country's divisive new constitution. The aim is to forge a thoroughly inclusive national compact that all of Iraq's communities can embrace.
Zarqawi's legacy of sectarian polarization will hover ominously over the proceedings, and if his group, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, survives the onslaught that U.S. forces will certainly try to unleash against it in the coming days, further attacks targeting Shiite civilians may subvert this fragile process and leave it in tatters.
Iraq teeters on the abyss. Zarqawi, a savage killer whose principal aim it was to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq by wreaking chaos, can rest peacefully in the knowledge that he came dangerously close to accomplishing this during his three-year bloody campaign.