Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, 39, a native of Jordan was killed outside Baquba, Iraq on June 7, 2006.
By and large, the world is pretty cool with that. So am I.
James Dunnigan had a prophetic post on one of my favorite sites for military information, Strategypage.com. He noted basically that Zarqawi had become such a bloodthirsty thug that he was a liability for the world Islamofascist movement and he was going to be sacrificed in the near future. Either Dunnigan had been tipped off about Zarqawi’s death (he was killed June 7, but the main news didn’t hit until June 8 here), or he meant “near future” as in “the next 12 hours”. A man known for beheading people personally and for inspiring/planning car bombings that killed hundreds, he died as he lived – violently.
First, a few words about the manner of his death. The house he was in was hit by two 500lb bombs, and was almost completely collapsed. He was “alive” when US forces got there, but bomb damage to the human body comes in two main types: damage to the body by bomb casing fragments (the steel shell) or other projectiles created by the bomb (including slamming the human body into things like walls), and overpressure. The expanding wave of pressure from the bomb will seek any entry into the body, the pressure usually isn’t enough to literally crush you but even if you don’t get killed immediately by the blast, the pressure wave moving through your nose and mouth into your lungs will shred your alveoli (the little soap-bubble-like sacs you breathe with) and cause pulmonary hemorrhages. Even if you survive the initial blast, the damage to your lungs can easily be fatal as your shredded lungs fill with tissue fluid and blood. In fact, there is a whole class of weapons called thermobaric weapons designed to kill in just this way. They are, to put it mildy, nasty. Add rib fractures and internal injuries from being slammed against a wall at 200mph by the blast wave and you’re going to die, period. If Zarqawi had been blown up beside a Level I trauma center he would still likely have died. There was no need to “beat him with rifles” as has been alleged. First aid was essentially useless, he was a goner anyway.
As to the significance of the death of Al-Zarqawi, other than being a good thing it’s not like we’ve killed the only boogeyman under the bed of the Iraqi people. While he and his organization were probably among the more vicious of the Anti-Coalition Forces, Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia was thought to be only one of fourteen major groups in “the insurgency”. As, or possibly more, important than his death is the information that was obtained by grabbing his document stash, there have been over 400 raids across Iraqi rounding up people he was connected with, with 104 terrorists reported killed. The actual numbers are less important than the fact that his organization has likely been badly decapitated and his communications network unzipped well down the line. AQIM isn’t gone, but their effectiveness is likely badly deteriorated. They still rolled out car bombs in the days following Al-Zarqawi’s death, but don’t be surprised – those were the ones in the workshops nearly ready to go. If all goes as planned, the info haul from Al-Zarqawi’s death will shortly have those workshops under new management.
The latest twit to be appointed the head of the AQIM organization is a relative unknown named Abu Ayyub Masri or Sheik Abu Hamza Muhajer. “Who?” you ask...well, that clunking sound is AQIM hitting the bottom of the barrel. Al-Zarqawi was smart to have survived in Iraq prior to Saddam’s fall, and for three years afterward. Anybody that is replacing him is at least less experienced, and less-experienced folks tend to make more mistakes. It’s hard to develop an institutional memory when the “old guy” has been on the job six weeks longer than you. It’s also hard to have an institution at all when your money men are enjoying the less-than-tender mercies of the Iraqi justice system. And I can’t help but think that if we knew more Arabic we’d be less intimidated by the names of these guys. They almost never use their own names, they make stuff up – Al-Zarqawi was from Zarqa in Jordan, thus the name. This is like being threatened by people named “Jimmy the Neck” and “Brooklyn Tommy” from The Sopranos.
So in short, one player is off the board, the Iraqis are happier and things are rosy in the short term, at least they were perceived to be rosy enough for GWB to take Air Force One to Baghdad and actually leave the airport for several hours. Al-Zarqawi had trouble making friends in Iraq, there have been plenty of reports of Sunni tribesmen attacking AQIM forces because AQIM found a particular chieftan too inflexible or too infidel and offed him, earning the enmity of his clan. The final straw actually came from Jordanian Intelligence, they caught a border guard who was assisting AQIM and he sang like a bird about Al-Zarqawi. Had Al-Zarqawi not blown up three hotels in Jordan I’m not entirely sure the Jordanians would have shared their intel with us in such a timely manner, but Al-Zarqawi had long ago made his bomb crater and on June 7 he got to lie in it. Good riddance.
As far as where this leaves the US in the medium term, the answer IMO is only slightly better. There’s still tons of ordinance unaccounted for from the Saddam regime that is being slowly tallied as it is used in IEDs and car bombings day by day. One of the more vicious organizations is going to need a lot of time to recover, if they ever do. This leaves (by one count) 13 more to go. The plusses are that Al-Zarqawi won’t be able to continue to foment Sunni-Shi’a intercine fighting, though between the legacy of Saddam, about a thousand years of history and predations by both sides on the others’ populations, that particular fire has enough fuel to sustain itself if properly tended by those remaining on both sides. Iraqi PM Al-Maliki has finally gotten some acceptable people into the Interior, Defense and Energy ministries, and if they’re good and effective technocrats who can be trusted by all parties, things will perk up substantially there. Al-Maliki also has a face-to-face visit from GWB under his belt, and in a society that highly values respect I can’t help but think that will give him some standing. Bush and Blair have both in the last month come to HIM, not the other way around. Most Iraqis, most people in the Arab world IMO, understand the gulf between their countries and the West, and the leaders of the two richest and most powerful nations in the West have both come to Baghdad to meet this one person. That has to count for something.
We got some breathing room, I think. Iraq still needs to get toilets that flush, clean water, cheaper gasoline and kerosene and electrical power 24/7, police that don’t steal and exploit, an army that is a servant of the people and not its oppressors. Roads, schools, hospitals and above all, domestic peace. Getting the place down to the criminal activity level of Washington, DC would be an advance. As Churchill said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”