Thursday, Jun 8, 2006 3:50 PM UTC

It’s great he’s dead, but the war will go on

Experts say a terrorist leader's death will do little to stem the violence in Iraq.

“Zarqawi may be gone, but the conflagration that he set alight continues to burn.” This quote in the New York Times from Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar at Rand Corp., nicely sums up the expert reaction to the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: It’s a wonderful thing we got him, but the violence in Iraq is likely to continue unabated.

For one thing, Zarqawi’s group, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, wasn’t an especially tightly knit organization — the name covered at least 60 separate terrorism teams that still have the capacity to fight on without Mr. Z in charge. As Hoffman put it, “He has already set in motion powerful forces that won’t necessarily stop just because he is dead.”

More important is the point the Brookings Institution’s Ivo Daalder raises in TPM Cafe: Zarqawi and his group aren’t the most important cause of violence in Iraq. “What we have in Iraq today — and have had for many, many months — is not a traditional insurgency or even wanton terrorism, but a large-scale sectarian conflict,” Daalder points out. “Much of the killing in Iraq today isn’t the result of Zarqawi’s men, but of Sunni and Shite militias engaged in a big fight for control of neighborhoods, towns, cities, and the resources they control. The vast majority of the 1,400 bodies that showed up in the Baghdad morgue last month (that’s right: 1,400 bodies — or nearly 50 people each and every day!) were killed by militias of one kind or another. The guys responsible for these deaths are not fighting an existing government (which is what an insurgency implies) but they’re fighting to determine who governs Iraq and what spoils will fall to which group of Iraqis.”

And then there’s the other thing, blowback. Zarqawi is dead, but as we pointed out earlier, we didn’t need to invade Iraq to get him. And by going into Iraq, how many more Zarqawis did we create?

In a long, timely profile of Zarqawi in the current issue of the Atlantic, one Arab jihadist says young men across the Middle East now dream of fighting the Americans as Zarqawi had. He tells the story of one boy: “He was from Saudi Arabia and had just turned thirteen. I noticed him in the crowd at a recruiting center near the Syrian-Iraqi frontier … The recruiters refused to take him because he was so young, and he started to cry. I went back later in the day, and this same small guy had sneaked aboard the bus. When they discovered him, he started to shout Allahu Akhbar! — ‘God is most great!’ They carried him off. He had $12,000 in his pocket — expense money his family had given him before he set off. ‘Take it all,’ he pleaded. ‘Please, just let me do jihad.’”