The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS – Even in Iraq, where appalling violence is routine, the grisly work of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi stands out.

He’s been linked to a rash of kidnappings and killings, suicide bombings and political assassinations – including two recent beheadings of American contractors, the beheading of American businessman Nick Berg in May, and the deadly bombing of the United Nations’ Baghdad office last year.

A videotape that appeared on an Islamic Web site on Wednesday showed associates of al-Zarqawi beheading two Iraqis they claimed were intelligence officers.

Virtually unknown until shortly before Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was toppled, al-Zarqawi has become a prime target for U.S. forces in Iraq. A $25 million reward has been offered for information leading to his arrest, matching dollar-for-dollar the bounty for al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden.

U.S. military aircraft repeatedly have pounded suspected safe houses purportedly occupied by his followers in Fallujah, an insurgent stronghold. On Wednesday, Iyad Allawi, Iraq’s interim prime minister, threatened to launch military operations in Fallujah if al-Zarqawi is not handed over to authorities.

The Bush administration and military officials have cast him as an outside agitator (al-Zarqawi’s originally from Jordan) and a terrorist mastermind linked to al-Qaida, although not with the same unwavering confidence that was exhibited in the run-up to military operations in Iraq.

And especially in recent months, al-Zarqawi’s been the focus of intense media attention.

Others, however, are less expansive in their assessment of al-Zarqawi’s role in Iraq’s insurgency, as well as his ties to al-Qaida. Whether his ideological message has much traction with the Iraqi population is another question. Evidence strongly suggests that disparate groups in Iraq have temporarily put aside their differences to take on a common foe – U.S. forces and the new U.S.-backed Iraqi government. That, some experts say, provided al-Zarqawi with greater opportunity to unleash mayhem in Iraq, even though he is an outsider with a radical agenda that may not appeal to many secular Iraqis.

Notwithstanding the attention that al-Zarqawi has drawn, Rand Corp. analyst Nora Bensahel suspects that “the bulk of the activities we’ve seen are domestic, rather than externally influenced by al-Zarqawi and al-Qaida-related groups.”

Ivan Eland, director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank, said that the Bush Administration has sought to focus blame for the Iraq insurgency on former members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, foreign terrorists, and “Jihadists” (Islamic radicals), “all of which they can paint as evildoers, and not nationalists fighting against the foreign invader.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell had described al-Zarqawi as an “associated collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida lieutenants” in his speech before the United Nations in February 2003, in which he laid out the Bush Administration’s case for war against Iraq. During last week’s debate with Democratic challenger John Kerry, President Bush asserted that Iraq is a central part in the war on terror and “… that’s why Zarqawi and his people are trying to fight us.”

Dr. Eland said that the attention to al-Zarqawi, in part, reflects a desire to “personalize our villains” and put a face to “an enemy, an evildoer, that we can slay.”

The fact that the United States is in the midst of a hotly contested presidential campaign also may be a factor in al-Zarqawi’s higher profile. Middle East expert Mary-Jane Deeb noted that Democrats are accusing Republicans of being distracted by the war and not focusing on terrorism

“By focusing the attention on Zarqawi, in a way, the administration is saying it is actually addressing the problem of terrorism,” said Dr. Deeb, who teaches at the American University in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Bensahel described beheadings, one of al-Zarqawi’s signature acts, as a particularly grisly tactic that gets a lot of media attention, “although in the aggregate, the damage that’s being inflicted from roadside bombs is probably greater.”

al-Zarqawi does have a role in the Iraq insurgency, according to Dr. Deeb, “but one cannot put the blame on Zarqawi for everything that’s happening.”

“If Zarqawi were caught tomorrow, would the insurgency cease or even decrease in Iraq? I would doubt it very much,” she said.

Few, however, would dispute al-Zarqawi’s credentials as a terrorist.

Reportedly a high school dropout, he became attracted to radical Islamic teachings and spent time with the mujahadeen who opposed the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. Returning to Jordan, his militant activities landed him in prison for several years. After his release in the late 1990s, he later returned to Afghanistan for a time,

Jordanian officials have implicated al-Zarqawi in a number of terrorist activities, including the October 2002 assassination of Laurence Foley, a senior official with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Jordan, and a thwarted plan to target tourists in Jordan during millennium celebrations.

Much of his background and movements are murky; terrorism experts still debate the extent of his relationship with al-Qaida and there’s even some question whether or not he’s had a leg amputated that was supposedly injured in Afghanistan.

Deeb said that al-Qaida’s nature, a very loosely bound organization that taps into existing Islamist networks, makes it difficult to establish links.

“… Zarqawi is autonomous in many ways, but he also has links to the people who are linked to al-Qaida and probably to al-Qaida itself, to the core,” she said.

Regional groups sometimes may disagree with al-Qaida or change their alliances, she said, but they are still within the general framework of radical Islamists who believe in the use of violence to achieve their goals.

“And in the case of Iraq, their goal is very simple,” she said. “It’s to get U.S. forces out of Iraq.”

According to U.S. intelligence officials, al-Zarqawi spent some time in northern Iraq shortly before Mr. Hussein’s fall, establishing ties with a radical Islamic group associated with al-Qaida known as Ansar al-Islam and had contacts with Iraqi officials.

Dr. Eland, however, asserted that al-Zarqawi was in a Kurdish area not under Saddam Hussein’s control, and was hostile to the Iraqi dictator’s regime as well as Kurdish groups.

Some reports also link him to terrorists in a number of Middle Eastern and European countries.

After the U.S.-led invasion last year, al-Zarqawi apparently expanded his activities in Iraq, conducting numerous attacks against U.S. forces and the U.S.-backed interim government.

“He is … operating in a permissive environment,” said Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There’s basically no real law enforcement.”

Levitt acknowledges that al-Zarqawi, whom he describes as “a global Jihadist of the first degree,” is not responsible for the overall insurgency in Iraq. But he does believe that al-Zarqawi is a dangerous part of it.

“Capturing or killing him is not going to end the resistance, but it certainly will be a real, legitimate victory,” Levitt said. “…This is a charismatic leader. Remove him and you remove a significant capability.”

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