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In Jordan, praise and condemnation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ZARQA, Jordan -- His real name was Ahmed Fadel Nazal al-Khalayleh, but he preferred to be known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a nom de guerre inspired by this scrappy industrial city where he was born and raised and, by all accounts, misspent his youth as a petty thief, thug and drunkard.

Yesterday, as news spread of their native son's demise, the residents of Zarqa couldn't quite agree on either condemning or celebrating the life of one of the world's most wanted men who, for better or worse, put their city on the map. Nor could they quite say whether they had a role to play in shaping the monster - or hero, to some - that he became.

There were those like Abdel Rahman Abu Shaqra, 37, a metal worker who appeared ready to name a street, put up historical plaques or open a museum for al-Zarqawi, which means "man from Zarqa."

Asked whether his hero had tarnished the image of this community, Abu Shaqra shook his head as if puzzled.

"He gave us a bad name? On the contrary," said Abu Shaqra, sitting in a barber's chair yesterday in Zarqa's shopping district and recounting al-Zarqawi's bravery in the face of American forces in Iraq, "May God have mercy on Zarqawi. He is dead but 10 others like him are going to appear."

Such a copycat scenario is the nightmare of Daha Abu Muhammed, 66, who, like others, was cheered by the news of the death of al-Zarqawi.

"I'm happy about Zarqawi's death but the most important thing is I don't want anyone to replace him," said Abu Muhammed, a Palestinian with a long, snow-white beard. "I'm sorry about Zarqawi because he gives us a bad name. I wish he was not a Jordanian."

As a Jordanian, al-Zarqawi reflected both in his life and now in his death the deep divisions in Jordanian society, between a Western-looking elite that controls the government and the legions of poor and jobless who feel shunned by their country's economic and political system.

An impoverished, working-class city of 472,000 people about an hour's drive east of Amman, Zarqa has been one of the cauldrons of its discontent. Ugly, blocky concrete homes with iron bars sprouting from the rooftops line the hilly streets. The roads are choked with traffic. The air is thick with exhaust and pollution from factories - factories that provide some jobs, but not enough for the population.

It was into this world of disaffection and anger that al-Zarqawi was born and raised, making his way as a thug from Zarqa's streets to the battlefields of Afghanistan as a young jihadi fighting Soviet forces in the 1980s.

He returned to Jordan unemployed and lacking any income. He fell in with other radical groups, eventually going to prison for plotting against the Jordanian government.

When he was released from prison in 1999, he left his family in Zarqa to return to Afghanistan and began, in earnest, his career as a militant with a long record of plotting suicide bombings, car bombings and beheadings. He never returned to Zarqa, residents say.

Members of al-Zarqawi's family gathered yesterday evening in a funeral tent on the outskirts of the city. A string of light bulbs was hung inside, where old men and young boys sat on plastic garden chairs below a large sign stretched between two poles: "The wedding of the martyr and hero Abu Musab al-Zarqawi."

Family members for the most part did not speak with reporters. One relative who identified himself as Abu Qudama told the Associated Press, "We're not sad that he's dead. To the contrary, we're happy because he's a martyr and he's now in heaven."

Few people here, even those who admired al-Zarqawi, have much good to say about his youth. He has been described as a thief, a drunk, a poor student, a rapist, a bully.

"There is a bad seed in him," said Abu Muhammed, who recalled seeing al-Zarqawi walking the streets near his shop many years ago. "I can't imagine a person liking him or admiring him. He's just like that terrorist [Osama] bin Laden."

Ahemed Hayak, 17, who grew up next to the Zarqawi home, said he encountered al-Zarqawi about a decade ago.

"He was a bad boy who would get into trouble and drink," he said. " I didn't like him as a person, but I liked what he did."

Khaled al Nahtases, 46, the owner of a uniform supply business, considered another possibility - that the lack of jobs in Zarqa might have driven the young al-Zarqawi into trouble, and that perhaps if conditions were better, he wouldn't have strayed so far.

Perhaps if compulsory army service had not been ended in the 1990s, Nahtases said, al-Zarqawi and others like him would have found another path. Or perhaps, if al-Zarqawi had been encouraged to stay in school, things might have been different.

Still, Nahtases could not contain his anger at al-Zarqawi.

"May God burn him in hell," he said, raising his voice. "There are corrupt people like him who do things like him. He used to take drugs. He used to drink. He is not a believer in Islam."

One of Nahtases' customers, Samir Abu Yousef, interrupted.

Hearing the condemnation by Nathtases, Abu Yousef stepped up to the store counter, waving his finger, warning him not to judge al-Zarqawi too quickly.

"Just because he drank in the past doesn't mean we should judge him," he said.

Abu Yousef also said no one should jump to conclusions about al-Zarqawi's death.

"We've heard before that he died. Until now I'm not 100 percent sure even if they put his photo on TV," he said.

Sympathetic to al-Zarqawi, Abu Yousef appeared willing to accept some of the uncomfortable contradictions in the man's life. That al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the triple hotel bombings in Amman last November that killed 60 people - most of them his fellow Jordanians - was unconscionable, he said, yet his bombings, beheadings and other insurgent activity in Iraq were in a sense fair game.

"In Iraq he was fighting the occupation. He was 100 percent right," he said. "But in Jordan he was 100 percent wrong."

Near Zarqa's al Hussein Ben Ali mosque, where the young al-Zarqawi was brought by his mother in an effort to reform him, Osama Hassan, 18, sat on the stoop of a corner store mourning his hero's passing.

"I was sad because Zarqawi used to pray in the same mosque as me and the same sheiks who teach me taught him," said Hassan, wearing a University of North Carolina baseball cap. But Hassan said he would never consider following in al-Zarqawi's footsteps.

He said he wants to go to college and study engineering and try to find a job. If he modeled his life on al-Zarqawi's, he has no doubt his life would be short.

"My fate would be the same as his," he said. "Death."

john.murphy@baltsun.com

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