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Zarqawi's Death Is Political and Propaganda Success

The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is primarily symbolic, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies tells Renee Montagne. Cordesman emphasizes that Zarqawi was merely the most visible member of a large and fractured insurgency in Iraq.

Q: Is this as big a setback for the operation of al-Qaida in Iraq as it seems at this moment?

I think it's important to understand that this is a largely a political and a propaganda success unless Zarqawi's death is accompanied by the discovery of some record of the cell structure and organization of al-Qaida. It's also important to understand what al-Qaida really is in Iraq; it's one of three major Islamist extremist groups in the insurgency.

Some 17 to 20 other groups have identifies themselves and there are many smaller, lower-level elements inside the insurgency. So while for many people it is the symbol for the insurgency and Zarqawi is the political leader, the symbol of al-Qaida, it doesn't mean that al-Qaida is going to lose its capabilities and it certainly doesn't mean the bulk of the insurgency will be affected.

Q: So his role in orchestrating the insurgency, was what, aside from being, as you said, the symbol of it?

Well, he was a very important leader. In a lot of ways, I guess the parallel would be Stalin back in the days of communism in Russia, somebody who was the leader of the violence, a person who organized daring raids and attacks. But even before this assassination, at one point he becomes so controversial in al-Qaida, he'd been put aside and other leader had been announced as the emir. He was criticized from al-Qaida outside Iraq because he called for a jihad, a holy war, against Shiites and fellow Muslims. Again, the fact he managed to make himself the symbol for al-Qaida doesn't mean that he was the only leader or the organizer. In a lot of ways he had become demonized as the symbol, but he was not the organization.

Q: Well, are there people who, or a person who can replace him as the face of insurgency and terror?

Well that's a very good question and the answer is, certainly not in the foreseeable future.

Most of the organizations other than al-Qaida don't even have the same name over time. They keep changing their identity. They don't have figures that emerge that have any charismatic or media image. Even within al-Qaida itself, nobody even knew whether the person who'd been named as the new emir when Zarqawi appeared to step aside, really had any status or meaning, and he was never given any media exposure.

And it's important to understand that if the government can appoint a new minister of interior and a new minister of defense, if it couples this kind of victory to measures like continuing to release detainees, like reorganizing the ministry of interior and police forces to eliminate their links to Shiite death squads, give them new uniforms, make them less corrupt, if he can execute plans that are under way to try to take back Baghdad from the militias and from the Zarqawi elements that infiltrated there, then what is in many ways a political victory can be accompanied by much more substantive action.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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