Slain al-Qaida in Iraq chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a “diabolically brilliant” war tactician, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, likening the terror commander to Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.
Zarqawi’s successors are less talented, and less able to manage what may be a shift in Iraq away from sympathy for foreign-born fighters, Rice said in an interview.
Zarqawi was killed by U.S. forces more than a year ago. Since then, the al-Qaida in Iraq network he led has suffered setbacks but has proved a resilient threat.
“He was diabolically brilliant,” Rice said of Zarqawi. “I think he was an outstanding organizer, I think he had a kind of strategic sense, and I don’t think the follow-on leadership has been quite as good,” Rice said in the interview with Fox news.
It is wrong to dismiss Zarqawi’s killing as a temporary or insignificant victory in the long fight against terrorism, Rice continued.
“When you hear people say ... ‘If you kill one of them, they’ll just replace him with another leader,’ remember that that’s like saying, ‘If you take out Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant, well, they’ll just replace them with another leader.”’ Rice said. “There are people who are better at this than others.”
After the death of the Jordanian-born Zarqawi, “they started to make more mistakes,” Rice said.
Al-Qaida in Iraq is a homegrown Sunni extremist group, comprised mainly of Iraqis but in some cases led and financed by foreigners. The Bush administration has said the shadowy group overreached in Anbar province, leading to a revolt by local sheiks.
Rice, who visited Anbar with President Bush this month, agreed with a questioner who asserted that “these foreign fighters have recognized that the game’s changed and has turned against them.”
“They’re still hoping for parts of Iraq, which is why we’ve got to stay on the hunt. I mean, they moved from Anbar to Diyala,” Rice said. “But your point is exactly right. They’re going to want to go someplace else because I think it’s not going to be long before they’re not welcome anywhere in Iraq.”
U.S. commanders in Iraq said in July that al-Qaida has been run out of some parts of the country yet still has the will, financing and fighters for significant attacks.
“They’re in disarray, but they’re always trying to make a comeback,” Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said in an interview. His area includes Diyala province, where al-Qaida in Iraq had a firm grip until recent heavy U.S.-led fighting.