Just Above Sunset
June 11, 2006 - A Good Death Assessed

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Thursday, June 08, 2006, was a big day in the news. Just think about what happened. The new Iraqi government finally got its act together and became, well, if not a fully functioning government, at least a fully staffed one -


The Iraqi parliament agreed upon candidates to lead the country's three top security ministries Thursday, ending a weeks-long stalemate among the country's largest political factions.

The selection of an interior minister, a defense minister and a national security adviser gives Iraq a complete government for the first time since elections in December 2005 and it provides a key opportunity to promote political reconciliation between members of the country's Sunni Muslim minority and the Shiite-dominated government.


Now that's a milestone. And it took long enough, but maybe now, after six months of dithering, they can get organized and shut down the militias and the death squads, which might be followed by restring services and taking over security matters a bit, thus producing some light at the end of the tunnel for us. But then that tunnel metaphor has its history from the days of our war in Vietnam - the oncoming train and all that. The task of settling things down is not an easy one, and maybe close to impossible. But you have to start somewhere. This is that somewhere. That should have been the big news of the day, but it wasn't.

Congress had other things on their collective mind, such as it is. The day after the Senate killed the attempt to start the process to amend the constitution to ban gay marriage, there was another killing - the Senate blocked the permanent repeal of the estate tax, or death tax, or whatever you wish. Temporarily suspended in the economic mess a few years ago when the financial district in lower Manhattan was coated in ash and body parts, it will return in 2010, just as it had been before, heavily taxing the 1.17 percent of the population with extraordinarily large estates when the holder of the estate dies. The Republicans ranted about how unfair it was to tax these folks, even if it meant losing a trillion dollars in revenue over ten years - fair is fair and all that. They earned what they earned. But two Republicans broke ranks and joined the Democrats thinking this was the wrong time to forgo the revenue, what with the massive and record federal deficit financed by some not so friendly governments buying oodles of treasury bonds and all, and all that had to be cut back in social spending and even the military, the VA and emergency response things. It seemed irresponsible, and maybe immoral, and in addition a bit hard to explain to the voters back home, except for the voters in the choice 1.17 percent group. There are just not enough of them. Yeah, that some group pumps great gobs of money into the campaign coffers, but that's not the same as raw votes. The whole thing is covered here if reading about what won't now happen interest you.

That made the Republicans 0 for 2 for the week - shot down on making sure the gays don't get the same rights as everyone else, and then shot down on protecting the right of the very wealthy to pass every penny of the family fortune on down to the next generations - more than a few pennies will now be surgically removed once again. It'll be just like old times. The remaining issue to be dealt with is of course voting to start the process to amend the constitution to ban flag burning, something no one has done since the late sixties. Some see it as a way to start to carve out exceptions to free speech while others see it as finally a way to tell people there are some things that just have to be respected. It's a little abstract, given that no one much burns flags any more, but it seems important to the Republicans. They've got this victim thing going. No one respects their values and all that, so make them show respect, damn it. This one is closer to passing, but it well could be an 0 for 3 week for them. And if it gets through the Senate and House, three-quarters of the states must agree that there really are certain things you can't do and can't say, beside the classic limitation on shouting fire in a crowded theater. It would be a step in the direction of making things more orderly and decent, or something like that.

But it will probably lose in the Senate, and that may be the plan - part of the victim thing where you get to say we tried to do thing right thing but the nasty and godless liberals who really run everything beat us up, and are you going to stand for that? The Republicans do the patriotic martyr thing very well indeed. It sells out in the heartland.

But they did win one, the legislation regarding Janet Jackson's very erect nipple. As noted here, the fines for the broadcasters who don't block nipples and such will increase tenfold, and they'd better watch the language that gets broadcast. This doesn't pertain to bars serving odd mixed drinks like Sex on the Beach or Coconut Orgasm. That's for later - first the broadcasters, later the printed menus. Making things more orderly and decent has to start somewhere, and this is that somewhere - passed by both houses and signed into law. We all feel safer.

But then almost none of this news got any coverage on the Thursday in question. That was because that day we learned that two F-16's bombed a safe house in the Iraqi town of Hibhib, killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and seven of his aides. Two five hundred pound bombs will do that. President Bush said this guy the "most wanted terrorist in Iraq" and the mastermind behind most all the bombings, beheadings, assassinations, suicide missions, and the Sunni insurgency. British Prime Minister Blair said the "death of al-Zarqawi is a strike against al-Qaeda in Iraq, and therefore a strike against al-Qaeda everywhere."

But they both kept it low key. Bad things will still happen, and they've lost their villain to blame for all that will come - forty more people blown up in various parts Iraq the day of the announcement. Bush and Blair know enough now not to say everything is now fixed and all better. They have a created a new martyr (that's what al-Zarqawi's brother says here. And that University of Michigan professor Middle East matter, Juan Cole, here says al-Zarqawi wasn't linked to the real al Qaeda at all, and basically al-Zarqawi "engaged in grandstanding" when he named his group "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia," and that "official US spokesmen have all along over-estimated his importance" -


There is no evidence of operational links between [Zarqawi's] Salafi Jihadis in Iraq and the real al-Qaeda; it was just a sort of branding that suited everyone, including the US. Official US spokesmen have all along over-estimated his importance. Leaders are significant and not always easily replaced. But Zarqawi has in my view has been less important than local Iraqi leaders and groups. I don't expect the guerrilla war to subside any time soon.


But he could be wrong. Cole was up for an appointment to the faculty at Yale but they decided no, after all the pressure from the right, many of whom where alumni. (Not to worry - the University of Michigan has a far better marching band.)

So was the guy a big deal?

Hard to say.

Late in the day the Los Angeles Times ran this -


Reactions Thursday to Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi's death reflected the contradictions and conspiracy theories that surrounded the elusive figure in life.

American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called al-Zarqawi the "godfather of sectarian violence in Iraq" during a speech Thursday morning in Baghdad, shortly after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's televised announcement of al-Zarqawi's killing.

But from Iraq's Anbar province, where the insurgency is strongest, to the Palestinian territories, al-Zarqawi was mourned as a martyr whose cause would continue long after his death Wednesday in a U.S. bomb attack.

"He died, but thousands of al-Zarqawis will follow," said Hussein Hashim Falluji, a 54-year-old Sunni merchant in Fallujah.


And they go on with an interesting survey.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar at Rand Corporation out this way simply says this - "Zarqawi may be gone, but the conflagration that he set alight continues to burn." It's good we got him, but he may have not been the real problem.

The Brookings Institution's Ivo Daalder explains -


What we have in Iraq today - and have had for many, many months - is not a traditional insurgency or even wanton terrorism, but a large-scale sectarian conflict. Much of the killing in Iraq today isn't the result of Zarqawi's men, but of Sunni and Shiite militias engaged in a big fight for control of neighborhoods, towns, cities, and the resources they control. The vast majority of the 1,400 bodies that showed up in the Baghdad morgue last month (that's right: 1,400 bodies - or nearly 50 people each and every day!) were killed by militias of one kind or another. The guys responsible for these deaths are not fighting an existing government (which is what an insurgency implies) but they're fighting to determine who governs Iraq and what spoils will fall to which group of Iraqis.


So it's a small but significant victory, but perhaps irrelevant.

And then there was that NBC News thing from March 2004 (here) with a number of intelligence people going on record saying we had at least three chances to take the guy out before the war, and when asked for permission to pull the trigger, on the F-16 or Hellfire equivalent of a trigger, the White House said no. He was a useful symbol - an al Qaeda guy actually in Iraq. He was our proof of the connection. And that was useful, even if he was in the north where Saddam was not in control at all. No one notices such details.

So now he matters in different way. As the president said - "It's a victory in the global war on terror, and it is an opportunity for Iraq's new government to turn the tide of this struggle."

Note he didn't say this was turning point. It's an "opportunity" for one. And it's not up to us, but to Iraq's new government. Things go bad? Don't blame us.

Of course the acerbic Christopher Hitchens weighs in here -


The latest Atlantic has a brilliantly timed cover story by Mary Anne Weaver, which tends to the view that Zarqawi was essentially an American creation, but seems to undermine its own prominence by suggesting that, in addition to that, Zarqawi wasn't all that important.

Not so fast. Zarqawi contributed enormously to the wrecking of Iraq's experiment in democratic federalism. He was able to help ensure that the Iraqi people did not have one single day of respite between 35 years of war and fascism, and the last three-and-a-half years of misery and sabotage. He chose his targets with an almost diabolical cunning, destroying the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad (and murdering the heroic envoy Sérgio Vieira de Melo) almost before it could begin operations, and killing the leading Shiite Ayatollah Hakim outside his place of worship in Najaf. His decision to declare a jihad against the Shiite population in general, in a document of which Weaver (on no evidence) doubts the authenticity, has been the key innovation of the insurgency: applying lethal pressure to the most vulnerable aspect of Iraqi society. And it has had the intended effect, by undermining Grand Ayatollah Sistani and helping empower Iranian-backed Shiite death squads.

Not bad for a semiliterate goon and former jailhouse enforcer from a Bedouin clan in Jordan. There are two important questions concerning the terrible influence that he has been able to exert. The first is: How much state and para-state support did he enjoy? The second is: What was the nature of his relationship with Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida?


Okay, was Saddam or some state supporting him, and how did he get along with the tall odd one?

Hitchens does make an odd concession - "The man's power was created only by the coalition's intervention, and his connection to al Qaida was principally opportunistic."

That's what Mary Anne Weaver documents here in an account of the first meeting of the now quite dead bad guy with Osama bin Laden -


As they sat facing each other across the receiving room, a former Israeli intelligence official told me, "it was loathing at first sight."

According to several different accounts of the meeting, bin Laden distrusted and disliked al-Zarqawi immediately. He suspected that the group of Jordanian prisoners with whom al-Zarqawi had been granted amnesty earlier in the year had been infiltrated by Jordanian intelligence; something similar had occurred not long before with a Jordanian jihadist cell that had come to Afghanistan. Bin Laden also disliked al-Zarqawi's swagger and the green tattoos on his left hand, which he reportedly considered un-Islamic. Al-Zarqawi came across to bin Laden as aggressively ambitious, abrasive, and overbearing. His hatred of Shiites also seemed to bin Laden to be potentially divisive - which, of course, it was.


Green tattoos? The guy knew nothing about job interviews. No tattoos.

Zarqawi made a name for himself with the Sunni insurgency in the first few months after Baghdad fell, but may not have been the central figure and ticked off lots of people - the hotel bombings in Jordan, with the wedding there and all, seemed a tad over the top.

Weaver -


"Even then - and even more so now - Zarqawi was not the main force in the insurgency," the former Jordanian intelligence official, who has studied al-Zarqawi for a decade, told me. "To establish himself, he carried out the Muhammad Hakim operation, and the attack against the UN. Both of them gained a lot of support for him - with the tribes, with Saddam's army and other remnants of his regime. They made Zarqawi the symbol of the resistance in Iraq, but not the leader. And he never has been."

He continued, "The Americans have been patently stupid in all of this. They've blown Zarqawi so out of proportion that, of course, his prestige has grown. And as a result, sleeper cells from all over Europe are coming to join him now."


So the light at the end of the tunnel may indeed be the oncoming train. No tears for the guy. He was one bad piece of work. But he was a small part of the puzzle.

The question is now what?


More tax cuts?


Ban flag burning?

Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik

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