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Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Death of Al-Zarqawi in context
Posted by Jill | 8:36 AM
I'm going to leave it up to those better versed in the Middle East than I to deconstruct the larger meaning of the death of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi in a U.S. airstrike last night.

This operation is undoubtedly good news at a time when the troops fighting in Iraq are sorely in need of some. I'm skeptical, however, about a) how much difference this will ultimately make in conditions on the ground in Iraq; and b) how much political mileage the Republicans will get out of this in terms of the midterm elections. It's occurred far too early in the game, which is why when I heard the news today I actually believed it to be true this time (despite the fact that we've heard many other times that Al Zarqawi had been killed).

The reality of the loose confederation of Islamic terrorist organizations is that if you cut off one head, it rapidly grows six more. As someone posted at the MSNBC feedback board this morning, is this what the world's only superpower has been reduced to? Crowing about the death of one guy?

The other factor which makes me wonder about the importance of this "catch" is the news not so long ago (April 10 of this year, in fact) that the Pentagon was exaggerating the importance of Al Zarqawi for propaganda purposes:

The U.S. military is conducting a propaganda campaign to magnify the role of the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to internal military documents and officers familiar with the program. The effort has raised his profile in a way that some military intelligence officials believe may have overstated his importance and helped the Bush administration tie the war to the organization responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The documents state that the U.S. campaign aims to turn Iraqis against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, by playing on their perceived dislike of foreigners. U.S. authorities claim some success with that effort, noting that some tribal Iraqi insurgents have attacked Zarqawi loyalists.

For the past two years, U.S. military leaders have been using Iraqi media and other outlets in Baghdad to publicize Zarqawi's role in the insurgency. The documents explicitly list the "U.S. Home Audience" as one of the targets of a broader propaganda campaign.

Some senior intelligence officers believe Zarqawi's role may have been overemphasized by the propaganda campaign, which has included leaflets, radio and television broadcasts, Internet postings and at least one leak to an American journalist. Although Zarqawi and other foreign insurgents in Iraq have conducted deadly bombing attacks, they remain "a very small part of the actual numbers," Col. Derek Harvey, who served as a military intelligence officer in Iraq and then was one of the top officers handling Iraq intelligence issues on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an Army meeting at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., last summer.

In a transcript of the meeting, Harvey said, "Our own focus on Zarqawi has enlarged his caricature, if you will -- made him more important than he really is, in some ways."

"The long-term threat is not Zarqawi or religious extremists, but these former regime types and their friends," said Harvey, who did not return phone calls seeking comment on his remarks.

Is this good news? In the short term, absolutely. But if in fact the Pentagon was exaggerating Al-Zarqawi's importance to play on Iraqi fears, and that catalyst is gone, what do they do next?

(cross-posted at Spiiderweb)
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