WASHINGTON -- The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a symbolic blow against the al-Qaida network, but it is unlikely to represent a turning point in either the Iraq war or the global fight against terror, terrorism specialists and former administration officials said yesterday.
The elimination of an important insurgent leader was a tactical military success, they said, but there are as many as 60 insurgent groups in Iraq, so the civil strife that al-Zarqawi helped incite will continue.
His death is at least a short-term setback for al-Qaida, with which he merged efforts in 2004, they said. But there is little consensus on what impact, if any, it will have on al-Qaida's global jihad campaign.
"Had we gotten Zarqawi a year and a half ago, you might have seen this as actually a substantial change in the direction of things," said Noah Feldman, a former adviser to the U.S. government in Iraq.
"The man is dead, but what lives on are his methods - the intentional killing of Iraqi civilians as a tactic in the insurgency."
In Iraq, al-Zarqawi's legacy is his introduction two years ago of a new insurgent strategy: killing Shiites to incite civil war and drive out the coalition forces indirectly. While al-Zarqawi might be a "footnote to history," the internecine conflict he fueled will be long remembered, said Feldman, a New York University law professor.
Al-Zarqawi's death came as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that he had filled the last key posts in his Cabinet. But the challenges facing Iraq are so immense that no single event, or even set of events, is going to change the course of history there, said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"You have to deal with the insurgency," he said. "You have to deal with Iraqi politics. You have to deal with economic security. You have to create a new sense of national identity. And all of these things take time."
The insurgent groups have different, sometimes overlapping, motivations, security analysts said. There are local Shiite and Sunni groups fighting each other, Saddam Hussein loyalists fighting the U.S.-led coalition, and foreign fighters attacking the coalition.
Al-Zarqawi's claim on the insurgency appeared to be larger than it was, they said, because he is a skilled propagandist. His force of foreign fighters represented about 5 to 10 percent of the insurgency, Cordesman said, and "much of it is likely to survive these events."
The Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, cautioned that al-Zarqawi's death might spark a fresh round of attacks in Iraq. But the cooperation that the administration said was provided by Iraqis in finding the terrorist leader was a good sign for both Iraq and the fight against terrorism, Roberts said.
"We hope it's a turning point, and I think that everybody should recognize that it is a big step," he said in an interview.
Defense analysts agreed that the credit given to the Iraqis will offer a morale boost for Iraqi forces that are genuinely trying to quell the chaos.
The hope is also that news of Iraqi assistance will erode trust within al-Zarqawi's network of foreign fighters, said Richard Falkenrath, a former White House national security aide.
Al-Zarqawi's troops "are going to be looking in that network and saying, 'Are you the rat?'" he said. "Trust is going to break down."
At that point, the United States has an opportunity to recruit more informants within the network, an effort that could be helped by information obtained from 17 raids on those with ties to al-Zarqawi after the bombing of his hideout.
Several lawmakers said al-Zarqawi's death was a major defeat for the al-Qaida movement. Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who chairs the Armed Services committee, called it "a very devastating blow" to al-Qaida.
While al-Zarqawi's death might be an immediate "propaganda blow" for al-Qaida, the longer-term impact could be far more dangerous for the United States and its allies, Falkenrath said.
Many of the foreign fighters are veterans of Afghanistan and other conflicts that preceded Iraq and are more angry at the West than they are about the Iraq war, Falkenrath said.
They might decide to turn their energies elsewhere, including Europe, where al-Zarqawi had been building a fundraising network, or the United States.
Roberts said, however, that al-Zarqawi's death and information recovered in the raids could expose other vulnerabilities within terrorist organizations.
"Sooner or later, you're going to get a break. And we got a break," he said. "We're going to be just as aggressive as we have been and push forward. The rest of al-Qaida's leadership should be nervous."
The intelligence value of those raids will depend to some degree on how much information about al-Zarqawi's operation can be used to go after al-Qaida in other countries.
Al-Zarqawi's relationship with al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden has been a marriage of convenience - and a recent one at that.
Earlier this decade, al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent, repeatedly refused to join forces with bin Laden, who is from Saudi Arabia, because al-Zarqawi was more interested in fighting Israel than the United States. Later, he founded Tawhid and Jihad, which was affiliated with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Once al-Zarqawi moved to Iraq and cultivated a high-profile reputation as an enemy of the U.S.-led coalition, he and bin Laden saw mutual benefit in joining forces. But the degree to which they have coordinated operationally is much debated.
Al-Zarqawi was "getting farther and farther off the al-Qaida reservation," said Michael Scheuer, who founded and ran the CIA's bin Laden analysis unit.
Bin Laden has said that the only thing that can destroy the al-Qaida movement is distraction by conflicts between Shiite and Sunni Arabs, Scheuer said. A Sunni Arab, he views his enemies in three tiers: the United States and the West, followed by Israel, and then Shiite Arabs.
Bin Laden would rather have an operative in Iraq focused more directly on the United States and the nascent Iraqi government than fomenting internal conflict, Scheuer said, and also someone who is lower-profile.
How al-Zarqawi's death will affect recruitment to the al-Qaida movement is a question that divided security experts.
If al-Qaida sympathizers see al-Zarqawi's death as a failure, they might decide to cast their lot with a cause other than al-Qaida's, said James Phillips, a Middle East scholar at the Heritage Foundation.
"It kind of undermines the appeal of their ideology," he said. "Part of his mystique was that he was able to operate in Iraq for so long despite the presence of the U.S. military."
He said al-Zarqawi's death was the United States' largest victory against al-Qaida since the 2003 capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chief planner behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But the United States could have inadvertently stirred up potential al-Qaida converts by releasing a photo of al-Zarqawi with a largely unmarred face after he was killed, Scheuer said. The signal that God has accepted a man as a martyr is that he looks composed in death, he said.
"Many Muslims will see that and say, 'Brother Musab must really have been favored by God,'" Scheuer said. "It will certainly give him a status as someone who died in God's cause because of the relatively unmarked face."
In a Baghdad briefing, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said the choice to clean up al-Zarqawi's face was intended to indicate respect for the dead.
"The intent was to show you that he, in fact, had died in that explosion," he said, but "there are far worse graphic pictures - that are very inappropriate, we felt, to share with anybody - that were the result of the immediate strike."
Sun reporter Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.