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Will killing have lasting impact?


WASHINGTON -- There is no doubt that the Iraqi government and U.S. forces have scored a major political and propaganda victory by killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaida's leader in Iraq.

Less clear is whether it will have a major impact over time.

The lasting importance of his death in a U.S. air strike depends on two things: the overall resilience of the insurgency in Iraq and how well the new Iraqi government can follow up with actions that build a national consensus and defeat all elements of the insurgency.

Much of whether Mr. al-Zarqawi's elimination has lasting influence or has the same temporary impact as Saddam Hussein's capture and the deaths of his sons depends on the new Iraqi government, which may be able to exploit the military strike with significant civilian actions, such as:

Following up the appointment of new interior and defense ministers, which may have great impact and will convince Sunnis that the Interior Ministry and its forces no longer will support attacks on Sunnis and will reassure Shiites and Kurds. The new ministers include a Sunni general as defense minister who has broad respect among Sunnis. The new interior minister is a Shiite free of the political ties that linked his predecessor to Shiite death squads and prison abuses. Their appointment is an important first step.

Freeing detainees and bringing Sunnis and Baathists back into the government and the Iraqi forces.

Investigating alleged American abuses, which is absolutely essential so that the Iraqi government and the United States can make it clear who is guilty of what, punish the guilty and identify the innocent. Such Iraqi action not only can demonstrate that the government is truly sovereign and provide a basis for showing there is no cover-up, but it is also vital to establishing that many of the charges against the U.S. military are almost certainly exaggerated or false.

Reaching out to Sunnis.

Cleaning up the Interior Ministry's security and police forces and prison guards with new uniforms and badges, tighter controls and discipline to end their associations with death squads.

Ending the operations of independent militias and irregulars, including taking control of Baghdad and the major cities of Mosul, Kirkuk and Basra to re-establish security in the most important areas in the country.

Appointing a group to review the draft constitution so that Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds will be more willing to believe in a government that would be truly national and representative.

There is no way the government can implement all of these actions overnight, and many will play out over a year or more. But the deterioration of Iraq since the political turmoil over the constitutional referendum and the Dec. 15 election does not have to continue. What counts is how real and how lasting government action will be.

Regardless of how decisively the government acts, Mr. al-Zarqawi's death will have a positive impact. There is no other figure in the insurgency who has captured Iraq's and the world's attention. Most other leaders are nearly faceless; many are unknown.

At the same time, Mr. al-Zarqawi's extremism occasionally was a liability. His cruelty and calls for jihad, or holy war, against the majority Shiites and his willingness to attack civilians and fellow Muslims have helped push at least some Sunnis away from the insurgency and have divided even some elements of al-Qaida in Iraq. There is some risk that his death will allow the surviving insurgency to broaden its base.

The past tendency to demonize both Mr. al-Zarqawi and al-Qaida in Iraq has been dangerously misleading; the insurgency is far more complex and robust.

The level of damage Mr. al-Zarqawi's death will do to al-Qaida in Iraq is nearly impossible to predict. Reports of deep divisions in al-Qaida sometimes seem to owe as much to wishful thinking and disinformation as fact.

But the United States has scored increasing success against the structure of the organization over the last year, and its intelligence and targeting capabilities have improved significantly. How much of this comes from new intelligence methods and how much from Iraqi informers is difficult to determine. The U.S. emphasizes Iraqi sources, but this may be to protect intelligence sources and methods.

Unless U.S. forces capture information that reveals al-Qaida's organization and cell structure, however, it seems likely that the impact of Mr. al-Zarqawi's death will be limited. He may be treated as a martyr, and his death even may be spun into a kind of "victory."

The bulk of al-Qaida's forces in Iraq is Iraqi, not foreign, and it has developed a highly compartmentalized organization, with regional emirs and cells with a high degree of isolation, security and independence. The result might be that most of al-Qaida survives and even becomes more moderate so that it expands its reach in ways that Mr. al-Zarqawi's extremism prevented.

One thing is clear: Most of the insurgency will not be affected because al-Qaida is a highly visible and extraordinarily brutal cadre under a much larger umbrella of different insurgent movements.

These groups, which seem to advance common themes and claim to be Sunni Islamist in character, will not be affected directly by Mr. al-Zarqawi's death and could be strengthened if his absence weakens al-Qaida and the government does not take the recommended actions.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His e-mail is acordesman@aol.com.

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