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After Zarqawi, no clear path in weary Iraq

Analysts and military spokesmen said Thursday that the death of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, killed Wednesday when two 500-pound bombs obliterated his hideout north of Baghdad, will not extinguish the sectarian conflict that he helped foment.
Iraqis sift through the rubble after a US raid in the town of Hibhib near Baquba
Iraqis sift through the rubble after the U.S. raid.Helmiy Al Azawi / Reuters
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Analysts and military spokesmen said Thursday that the death of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, killed Wednesday when two 500-pound bombs obliterated his hideout north of Baghdad, will not extinguish the sectarian conflict that he helped foment and that is now claiming many more lives in Iraq than his campaign of beheadings and bombings.

The slaying of the Jordanian-born guerrilla leader eliminated the biggest advocate of the extreme violence against civilians that has made the Iraq war so grisly. Zarqawi and his radical Sunni Arab group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, carried out suicide attacks that could kill 100 or more passersby in a flash of light and videotaped the last gasps of foreign hostages being decapitated.

But other crucial questions, analysts say, are thrown completely up into the air: whether other foreign fighters will show themselves equally eager to slaughter civilians, whether the Sunni insurgency will split into fragments or broaden its base and, above all, whether the Shiite-Sunni killing that Zarqawi's attacks helped unleash can be reined in.

"The immediate aftermath of this will probably be an upsurge of violence" as Sunni insurgents hurry to show that Zarqawi's killing has not broken the resistance, said Michael Clarke, an expert on terrorism at the International Policy Institute of King's College London.

"In the medium term, in the next month or two, it will probably help to downgrade sectarianism," Clarke said by telephone. "But the dynamic of sectarian violence is probably past the point of no return."

Attacks on Shiite Muslim civilians and on Iraq's largely Shiite security forces, often carried out by al-Qaeda in Iraq, fueled violence between Sunnis and Shiites for three years, although no group asserted responsibility for the attack that pushed the bloodletting to its current high level -- the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. Thousands of civilians have died in Baghdad alone since then.

Zarqawi's death "will help, but probably not enough," Clarke said. "If Zarqawi had been killed a year ago, I would be much more positive about the effects of his death than I really can be now."

The U.S. military focused Thursday on the potential impact of Zarqawi's killing on the Sunni insurgency. Without Zarqawi, military officials contended, the insurgency lacks its main fundraiser and figurehead. "He's been really at the forefront in terms of being able to recruit and bring in foreign fighters, so this definitely will disrupt the effort," said one military official familiar with the hunt for Zarqawi.

‘Operational intellect’
"No one behind him had the kind of charisma and operational intellect that he brought to the table," the official said. "Our hope is no one can step in, and you end up with fragmentation and perhaps dissension among his followers."

Critics of the U.S. military's campaign in Iraq have accused American commanders of making their own use of Zarqawi, exaggerating the foreigner's importance to suggest that the insurgency has been thrust upon Iraqi Sunnis more than it has been led by them.

Almost as soon as American officials declared Zarqawi dead on Thursday, they pointed to a foreigner as the man they thought likely to take his place.

Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, a U.S. military spokesman, identified the man as Abu al-Masri, an Egyptian and a veteran of the Afghan conflicts. Masri appeared to have come to Iraq in 2002, probably helped found the first Baghdad cell of al-Qaeda in Iraq and was involved in bombmaking, Caldwell told reporters at a Baghdad news conference.

"But the key thing that we realize is he's not an Iraqi," Caldwell said. "You know, he's from a different country, he's come into Iraq and he's been out killing innocent Iraqi civilians. He's not the kind of person that the government of Iraq, the Iraqi people themselves nor the coalition forces care to have existing in this country."

But Masri has no public profile. Ordinary Iraqis and international experts said they knew little about the Egyptian put forward by the Americans as Zarqawi's heir apparent. And if U.S. commanders were quick to put a new foreign face on the insurgency, leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq were equally quick to insist that the new face was an Iraqi one.

A statement posted on Web sites and in mosques in the heavily insurgent western city of Ramadi declared that a Baghdad man -- Abdullah ibn Rasheed al-Baghdadi -- was the head of a recently formed umbrella group of Iraqi insurgent organizations that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The statement was issued in the name of Abu Abdul Rahman al-Iraqi, the nom de guerre of an Iraqi identified as a former army general. Abdul Rahman is said to have been behind some of al-Qaeda in Iraq's comparatively rare military-style attacks, including a multi-pronged raid on Abu Ghraib prison last year.

"We are Jihadists in the cause of God, not of Abu Musab or any other," the statement declared.

"We pledge to Sheik Osama bin Laden, our emir, that he shall see from the Qaeda organization during the coming days longer breath, more strength and further scourging of Americans," the statement said. "There is between us and them a lengthy war, and those who have blasphemed shall see who prevails. God is the victor."

Abdul Rahman has been cited as Zarqawi's deputy and possible successor since last year.

Zarqawi himself is considered to have fallen out of favor with al-Qaeda as a whole during that time, allegedly because of his slowness to declare fealty to bin Laden and because al-Qaeda leaders saw that the beheadings and wholesale slaughter of civilians by Zarqawi's group revolted supporters instead of rallying them.

‘A burden on al-Qaeda’
"The man was a burden on al-Qaeda," said Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper and a noted Palestinian observer of international militant groups.

"I believe personally that President Bush unintentionally gave al-Qaeda a huge reward in getting rid of Zarqawi," Atwan said by telephone from London. "He was an unmanageable bully who forced himself as a leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq."

Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's founding leaders, are likely to try to put in place a leader "they have more operational control of" and who will take fewer personal risks, according to a longtime participant in the U.S. military hunt for Zarqawi.

"To them, this day serves two purposes," the participant said. "They've got their martyr, and they can put one of their guys in who they've been grooming, who is not running around playing master and commander on the battlefield but is going with the party line, and that is the danger."

Observers held out the possibility that with the death of Zarqawi, whose insistence on targeting Shiite civilians rather than military targets caused a rift with al-Qaeda leaders, the insurgency might focus more on attacking U.S. and Iraqi security forces.

And in contrast to pronouncements after the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, no one ventured publicly on Thursday that the killing of Zarqawi might spell the end of the insurgency.

Even Caldwell, the U.S. military spokesman, warned that the most likely initial effect would be a surge in attacks.

"We're looking for an increase in insurgent activity as each wannabe-Zarqawi vies for status as the baddest boy on the block," an Army officer in Baqubah, near the scene of the lethal airstrike, said in an e-mail.

"We've been here so many times: the killing of Uday and Qusay [Hussein], the capture of Saddam, the elections, the transfer of sovereignty, the new government -- all marked by euphoria, lots of talk of tipping points, lots of high fives and then dismay as Iraq continues to spiral into oblivion," said retired Marine Lt. Col. Dale Davis, a former intelligence officer still active in the Middle East.

Momentum lost
In each previous instance, analysts said, U.S. and Iraqi leaders squandered the momentum generated by such elated announcements. The challenge now facing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is to defuse sectarian tensions through what U.S. officials hope will be national reconciliation and to make this victory over the insurgency stick.

"If it is just Zarqawi, it is largely a political and propaganda victory and could disappear as quickly as capturing Saddam or killing his sons," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "You are going to turn him into a martyr to those who support his cause. If you have more Iraqi insurgents become more visible and more intense, this doesn't necessarily make it worse for the insurgency."

Staff writers Thomas E. Ricks, Josh White, Ann Scott Tyson and Barton Gellman in Washington and Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.