Starting in 2003, the Bush administration and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi fell into a strange sort of cooperative arrangement: Both sides felt they could benefit by pumping up his reputation as a terrorist mastermind. The U.S. demonized him; Mr. al-Zarqawi obligingly portrayed himself as America's most ruthless and determined enemy.
He was, in fact, responsible for terrible and often gruesome acts of murder. He had arrived in Iraq shortly after U.S. forces did, determined to drive a wedge, violently, between Shiites and Sunnis. He had considerable success on that score, until his career as a jihadist ended Wednesday evening with two 500-pound bombs. He won't be mourned - not even by his putative allies.
Mr. al-Zarqawi, like countless zealots before him, had become ever more extreme in his religious views, to the point that he had turned even on the Sunni Iraqis who were supposedly his allies. Within the last week, his men had reportedly attacked a Sunni mosque because of what he believed to be an excess of idolatry, and had engaged in a separate gun battle with Sunnis that left four dead. His neighbors, on the outskirts of Baqubah, may well be glad to be rid of him, even as they continue to resist Shiite death squads and American military patrols.
Moreover, although his death is surely a blow to the group that calls itself al-Qaida in Iraq, it would be misleading to portray him purely as an asset to the larger organization established by Osama bin Laden. The two terrorists, according to several accounts, had a prickly and mutually suspicious relationship. In 2004, Mr. al-Zarqawi finally draped himself in an al-Qaida banner, but he was clearly an independent operator.
He was, just as clearly, not the main source of trouble or violence in Iraq. The U.S. spent three years personalizing the conflict in Iraq by painting him as the man behind the evil. To some extent, this did raise his stature - among would-be jihadists - but now he's dead and there's little reason to believe that the bloodshed will be stanched. (And, outside Iraq, there's little reason to believe that al-Qaida's plotting will be deterred.)
At least President Bush and the generals running the U.S. war effort recognize that reality. The conflict in Iraq does not come down to a single crazed extremist with a gun and a cadre of followers. Killing him, Mr. Bush said yesterday, was about delivering justice; it wasn't about securing peace. Yet the vengeful elimination of this zealous fanatic does at least open a door to the larger and undoubtedly harder task - pursuing every avenue toward convincing the homegrown insurgents (and their increasingly violent opponents, too) that politics is better than war.