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"What al-Zarqawi's Death Means for Iraq"

In December 2005, according to press reports, U.S. military intelligence identified Sheikh Abd al-Rahman as al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's spiritual mentor. By following al-Rahman for months, and gathering further information, the U.S. military was able to confirm that al-Zarqawi was at a safe house near Baquba, north of Baghdad, on the night of June 7. An air strike was called in and al-Zarqawi died shortly thereafter as a result of injuries sustained from the bombing run. Hours after the announcement of al-Zarqawi's death, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki appointed his ministers of interior, defense and national security. These incidents marked two positive developments for Iraq's transition. Nevertheless, when analyzed in context, they are unlikely to reverse the trend toward instability that has dogged Iraq since shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government.

Al-Zarqawi's Legacy

As a result of the nature of al-Qaeda in Iraq, it is difficult to asses the impact that al-Zarqawi's death will have on the insurgency and the sectarian violence. It seems certain, however, that it will do little to stem the bloodshed. The impact of his death depends largely on how much control he had over al-Qaeda in Iraq and the importance of this organization to the insurgency. By looking at both aspects, it appears that al-Qaeda in Iraq will most likely survive its leader's death and that its impact on the fighting in the country will be marginal, if only because al-Qaeda comprises a small portion of the insurgency.

The hierarchy of al-Zarqawi's organization is rather opaque, and it is not clear how much control he had over the network of foreign fighters in Iraq. At least 20 of al-Zarqawi's "lieutenants" have been captured or killed in Iraq since 2003, but it seems that the organization has been able to quickly fill any open posts. In fact, shortly after al-Zarqawi's death, an Islamist network published a statement naming Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, who was apparently al-Zarqawi's "deputy emir," as the new leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Some confusion has developed over this announcement because al-Iraqi has the same name as al-Zarqawi's spiritual adviser, who U.S. authorities claim was killed in the bombing run. Analysts have speculated that these may be two different individuals. At the same time, U.S. authorities put forth another name, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, as the likely successor of al-Zarqawi. Abu Ayyub al-Masri was named by Major General William Caldwell, the U.S. spokesman in Iraq. Al-Masri is an Egyptian who allegedly came to Iraq in 2002 from Afghanistan where he shared "communications" with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. These two developments indicate that al-Qaeda in Iraq's organizational structure will continue, and it may even grow in strength if the new leader proves to be more effective.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's reputation as a brutal, uncompromising militant, without strong religious credentials, likely made even Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri uncomfortable in aligning with him. His violent attacks made him unpopular with segments of the Sunni Arab population in Iraq, who shared his goals of forcing the United States out of the country and reestablishing Sunni dominance. Al-Zarqawi also weakened a Muslim front against the United States by encouraging attacks on Shi'a. For instance, in an audiotape that al-Zarqawi released shortly before his death, he said, "The roots of Jews and the Shi'a are the same" and even went so far as to brand Shi'a leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as an "atheist."

These statements further split the Muslim community in Iraq, and heightened tensions between Sunni and Shi'a elsewhere creating the possibility that Islamist militants could turn on each other, damaging bin Laden's efforts at vitalizing all Muslims against the "far enemy" -- the United States and its allies. In July 2005, for example, al-Zawahiri reportedly sent a letter to al-Zarqawi, questioning his attacks against the Shi'a; the letter warned that "questions will circulate among mujahideen circles and their opinion makers about the correctness of this conflict with the Shi'a at this time."

Al-Zarqawi's Successor

Indeed, although al-Zarqawi was successful in inspiring foreigners to join the insurgency in Iraq, as a popular leader of Iraqis he was a failure. One danger that his death leaves open for the United States and the Iraqi government is the possibility that al-Zarqawi's successor will be more competent. If al-Qaeda in Iraq is successful in winning more Sunni hearts and minds in Iraq, it could prove to be a larger threat to the new Iraqi government than under al-Zarqawi's helm. As a result of the time spent between al-Masri and al-Zawahiri, analysts think that if al-Masri takes control of the organization, he may direct al-Qaeda in Iraq on a course that more closely resembles bin Laden's strategy. Additionally, al-Iraqi, the other possible replacement for al-Zarqawi, is thought to be of Iraqi origin (al-Zarqawi was Jordanian), which means he would probably be better able to rally the support of Iraqis.

It is worth noting that al-Zarqawi's organization represents only a small portion of the insurgency. Still, a higher proportion of the casualties in Iraq are attributed to al-Zarqawi's organization because of its willingness to use controversial tactics that the domestic insurgents are not. Nevertheless, as a result of al-Zarqawi's small role in the insurgency, his death will not diminish the sectarian tensions or the current level of violence.

The Iraqi constitution was drafted along sectarian lines, the government was formed along sectarian lines, and the security forces are largely operating as sectarian forces. The trend toward the fracturing of Iraq along sectarian lines will not be reversed by al-Zarqawi's death, nor will the violence associated with this trend. It appears that most U.S. officials agree that there will not be a fall in the level of violence in Iraq as a result of al-Zarqawi's death.

The appointment of an interior minister shortly after the assassination, however, has the potential to slow this sectarian trend. Jawad al-Bolani is not associated with any militias, unlike his predecessor at the ministry, and will make it his priority to route out the SCIRI-aligned Shi'a "death squads" believed to be targeting Sunnis. His ability to take on the militias, however, will be determined by his capacity to take on the divided factions within the Shi'a United Iraqi Alliance, as each side is unlikely to concede its militia without the other doing so first. Al-Bolani faces a Herculean task in achieving this goal, but the survival of his government may well depend on his success.

Conclusion

While Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death is a major public relations coup for the U.S. military and the Iraqi government, it is unlikely to have a major impact on the trend toward the sectarian fracturing of Iraq. His forces composed only a small part of the insurgency, and guerrilla fighters associated with other violent organizations and militias will continue their operations against the Iraqi government and U.S.-led forces. Additionally, it appears that al-Zarqawi will be quickly replaced like his "lieutenants" before him. While al-Zarqawi was the face of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and for the most part the organization's only visible figurehead, his replacement may prove more effective at garnering domestic support for the organization. Finally, the appointment of a minister of the interior has the potential for a greater impact on reducing the sectarian violence, although here, too, it seems al-Bolani's task is too great, and he will likely have little impact in reversing the trend toward Iraq's fragmentation.

Report Drafted By:
Adam Wolfe



The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of inquiries@pinr.com. All comments should be directed to content@pinr.com.

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