Zarqawi: The Man and the Myth

In life, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi cast a giant shadow not only over Iraq, but across the entire Middle East – thanks, in large part, to the U.S. government’s propaganda apparatus, which kept up a constant barrage dedicated to identifying the Iraqi insurgency with the leader of the “Monotheism and Holy War” grouplet, often referred to as “al-Qaeda in Iraq.” In death, however, quite a different story emerges.

As Ned Parker, London Times reporter in Baghdad, put it, Zarqawi was “a figurehead, an icon, a totemic figure” who “was absolutely hated by most normal Iraqis on both sides of the sectarian divide.” Aside from being a foreigner – his name literally means “the man from Zarqa,” a Jordanian town half an hour’s drive from Amman – his mad car-bombing crusade alienated even his fellow Sunnis in the insurgency, and it is they who may have been his ultimate undoing. Parker writes:

“One of the most interesting things about the news of his death is the timing. There have been talks going on since the election last December by U.S. and Iraqi officials to try to bring the homegrown insurgency back into the political process. Certainly there was tension between the homegrown Iraqi insurgency and Zarqawi’s foreign fighters. So it’s possible a deal was finally cut by some branch of the Iraqi insurgency to eliminate al-Zarqawi and rid themselves of his heavy-handed influence.”

Parker’s analysis was pretty much confirmed when Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told reporters that a tip from someone “in Zarqawi’s network” put them on the terrorist leader’s trail. According to Caldwell, about a month and a half ago the Americans received credible intelligence about the whereabouts of Sheik Abd-al-Rahman, the “spiritual adviser” to the Zarqawi group:

“Gen. Caldwell said Wednesday night was the first time U.S. forces had ‘definite unquestionable information’ they could strike the target without causing collateral damage to civilians. ‘We had absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Zarqawi was in the house,’ he said. ‘We knew from having watched the movements of Abd-al-Rahman that he was there too.'”

Not to parse this too closely, but being “in Zarqawi’s network” and being a hardcore member of the Monotheism and Holy War group seem to be two different conditions: it is possible, given this, that Parker is right, and Zarqawi was turned over to the Americans by Iraqi insurgents, i.e., the real insurgency, which is eager to debunk the claim that their movement consists mostly of “foreign fighters.” The insurgents wanted him out of the way, and the Americans – desperate for some good news about the Iraq war, support for which is flagging badly on the home front – wanted a success, however temporary and illusory it might be. And so a deal was struck…

The Americans had their victory, and lost no time in celebrating it with nothing less than a statement from the president himself, in which Bush described Zarqawi as “the operational commander of the terrorist movement in Iraq” and averred:

“Iraqis can be justly proud of their new government and its early steps to improve their security. And Americans can be enormously proud of the men and women of our armed forces, who worked tirelessly with their Iraqi counterparts to track down this brutal terrorist and put him out of business.”

This kind of guff may go over with Americans, but in any Iraqi it is bound to produce a bitter guffaw. The only people the “government” in Baghdad is good at tracking down are the victims of the Interior Ministry’s death squads. If reports of Zarqawi’s betrayal are true, then Iraqis should be proud of whichever insurgent group fingered the Mad Bomber and put an end to his perfidy.

The War Party is utilizing the zapping of Zarqawi as an occasion to, as the president put it, “give us renewed confidence in the final outcome of this struggle,” but that is not only improbable – it is the exact opposite of what is likely to occur. As former Pentagon analyst Anthony Cordesman framed Zarqawi’s death:

“Most of the insurgency will not be affected, because al-Qaeda is a highly visible and extraordinarily brutal cadre within a much larger group of different insurgent movements. These groups will not be directly affected by Zarqawi’s death and could be strengthened if his death weakens al-Qaeda.”

If I were in the insurgency, I’d want my guys to take credit for the deed – and it looks to me like they deserve it.

Who doesn’t deserve it is precisely those who are now taking credit for it – the U.S. government and its puppets in Baghdad. Remember that deal with the Iranians, which was supposed to have Tehran handing over a group of al-Qaeda operatives in exchange for the heads of the Mujahideen al-Khalq? A son of Osama bin Laden was said to be one of the al-Qaeda operatives; another was reportedly Zarqawi. The neocons nixed the deal, however: that was purportedly the purpose of a meeting of Michael Ledeen, Larry Franklin, and a group of Iranians held in Rome before the war. Zarqawi subsequently found his way into Kurdistan, where he was reportedly identified and targeted by the U.S. military, which wanted to take him out then and there.

The response from higher-ups in the administration, however, was negative: they needed Zarqawi as a convenient propaganda icon, living proof that “we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.”

An important part of Powell’s infamous presentation to the UN, you’ll remember, was focused on the alleged connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, embodied by Zarqawi. The terrorist leader, said Powell, supposedly established two dozen “al-Qaeda affiliates” during his two-month stay in Baghdad. Powell also touted a satellite photo of a camp he claimed Zarqawi set up in northeastern Iraq devoted to the mass production of poison. The camp turned out to be bogus, and the Zarqawi connection proved equally dubious. But the propaganda war – the one directed at the American people – was more important to this administration than the real war on the ground, and that is why an earlier opportunity to kill the Mad Bomber was lost.

Now, at long last – after he managed to kill hundreds more – the Americans have finally taken him out. The only rational reaction to this turn of events is: what took you so long, guys?

Not that we’ll ever get an honest answer…


Update: In view of this, I think the case for crediting the insurgency with Zarqawi’s elimination is even stronger. So, it appears that the Mad Bomber was on the outs with Al Qaeda, too, and not just the Iraq-based rebels. And this prescient piece posted on the day before he bit the dust just about says it all:

"Given that Zarqawi has become a loose cannon and that his actions are handicapping Al Qaeda’s efforts, it seems reasonable to expect that an accident may befall him at some point in the near future. If handled right it can be made to look like he went out in a blaze of glory fighting American troops or that he was foully murdered. Either way, al Qaeda gets rid of a problem and gains another ‘martyr.’"

Zarqawi was going off the reservation, and they handed him over to the Americans. I’ll leave it to the professional apologists to explain how we have to collaborate with terrorists in order to fight terrorism. Suffice to say that there is more – and, also, much less – to this great "victory" than meets the eye.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].