The Magazine

Now for the Bad News

Zarqawi is dead, but the damage he did remains.

Jun 19, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 38 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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ABU MUSAB AL ZARQAWI is among the least interesting Islamic terrorists since modern Islamic terrorism took shape in Iran and Egypt in the 1950s and '60s. Compared with Osama bin Laden, with his elegant prose, his appreciation for redolent historical Muslim narrative, his seemingly conscious imitation of the Prophet Muhammad, and his refined, almost feminine movements, Zarqawi was Islamist trailer trash, a crude man whose love of violence was unvarnished, organic, perhaps perversely sexual. But Zarqawi was a man of his age: He is a big red dot on the graph charting the Islamic world's moral free fall since modernity began battering traditional Muslim ethics, with ever-increasing effectiveness after World War One.

It is by no means clear that Zarqawi is near the bottom of this plunge. His joy in massacring infidels--along with all the Muslims the extremists deem apostates--could even become the defining feature of bin Ladenism in the future. Zarqawi's death is a cause for jubilation, especially among Iraq's Shiites, whom he zealously slaughtered. No single man did more to bring on the sectarian strife that is crippling Iraq. If the Shiites give up on the idea of Iraqi brotherhood--which grows ever more likely as half-hearted, undermanned American counterinsurgency strategies continue to fail--and grind the Sunni Arab community into dust, possibly provoking a vicious duel among Sunnis and Shiites across the region, Zarqawi can posthumously and proudly take credit.

Zarqawi was tailor-made for post-Saddam Iraq: a barbaric, very modern Sunni fundamentalist in a society pulverized and militarized by Saddam Hussein. Through oppression and support, Saddam had energized Sunni militancy. Starting in the late 1980s, the Butcher of Baghdad became one of the great mosque builders of Islamic history, and under his domes, Islamic fundamentalists increasingly gathered. Long before Saddam fell, a reinvigorated Sunni Islamic identity was replacing the desiccated, secular Baath party as a, if not the, lodestone of the Sunni community. Always looking outward toward the larger Sunni Arab world (and away from the Shiite Arabs and Sunni Kurds, who comprise about 80 percent of Iraq's population), Iraq's Sunni Arabs were playing catch-up with their foreign brethren, who had already downgraded, if not buried, secular Arab nationalism as an inspiring ideology and given birth to bin Ladenism.

Zarqawi lasted as long as he did in Iraq because he had many sympathizers, probably even among those who were revolted by his gruesome tactics, often aimed at Shiite women and children. Zarqawi and his men were regularly, so it is said, obliged to move their headquarters and areas of operation because of Iraqi Sunni resistance to his methods and his overbearing ways. This may well be true. But Iraq's Sunni insurgents could have easily killed him and his foreign and Iraqi jihadist allies. Their numbers and means dwarfed his. They could have betrayed him long ago, to either his American or his Iraqi enemies. Sunni Arab Iraq is a region of villages, towns, and cities surrounded by great swaths of desert where city kids, like Zarqawi and his foreign holy warriors, cannot sustain themselves. (Important rule about modern Islamic holy warriors: They are urbanites who know not camels.)

The Sunni will to power is deep-rooted and ferociously strong in Iraq. Underestimating this force and failing to confront it head on early in the occupation remains perhaps the single greatest analytical error of the U.S. military, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Coalition Provisional Authority under Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. It distorts and has so far defined the ethics of the Iraqi Sunnis as a community.

Their belief in Sunni supremacy has made mincemeat of those Americans and secularized Iraqis who were certain that Iraqis thought of themselves as Iraqis first, without reference to sectarian loyalties. Sunni hubris has made compromises with the Kurdish and especially the Arab Shiite communities extraordinarily difficult. Whether it be dividing oil wealth, assigning senior positions in government, or striking the balance between purging and tolerating the former Baathists, Iraq's Sunnis could surely have cut a better deal without the Sunni insurgency. More than any other factor, the insurgency has converted Iraq's traditional Shiite clergy from hostility to federalism in Iraq to neutrality or even sympathy. Zarqawi understood the dynamic here and did all that he could to ensure that sectarian sensitivities were inflamed after Saddam's fall.