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Slate's War Stories: Future of the Iraq Insurgency

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Daniel Byman is director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University. He's got an article posted on the online magazine Slate today asking will Zarqawi's death be a short-lived triumph? Daniel Byman, why short lived?

Mr. DANIEL BYMAN (Director of Security Studies Program, Georgetown University): Zarqawi was a leader but he was not a great leader. He's someone who divided the Iraqi insurgency. He alienated many of the Iraqi people and was someone who we may look back in hindsight and say that he was one of the least affective leaders that the anti-U.S. Forces have had.

CHADWICK: But symbolically, he seemed to be a very important figure. He's certainly the only name that we know among the insurgent leaders, that must count for - well, quite a lot I would think.

Mr. BYMAN: Killing Zarqawi matters. It's a signal to the Iraqi insurgency. It's a signal to al-Qaida that the United States is a formidable foe. It's a way of showing the American people that we are gaining some success in Iraq, and this is a very bad man whose death we should all celebrate. We just need to be cautious in assuming that this is a turning point in the struggle in Iraq.

CHADWICK: One important role that he's played is prompting the sectarian conflict that's developed so horrifically over the last, eight, nine, ten months. What is his role there? Why is this something that he's advocating?

Mr. BYMAN: Zarqawi wanted sectarian conflict in Iraq for two reasons. The first was genuine ideology. He believed that Shiite Muslims were apostates who as a result deserved death, and believed this in his heart. He also wanted to turn Iraq into chaos as a way of undermining the U.S. effort there and giving the jihadist movement a toehold that he believed would later allow it to expand throughout the rest of the Middle East.

CHADWICK: There are reports we're hearing that perhaps the U.S. was tipped off by one of Zarqawi's own people, that within the insurgency, they may have let out the information about where he is. Any credibility to that, do you think?

Mr. BYMAN: That is plausible. Only a few people tend to know where terrorists' leaders are at a given moment. So to locate one with sufficient detail to be able to do a military attack suggests that there was very precise intelligence, that one source could be someone close to him.

CHADWICK: Will you raise this caution about the long-term things that we're going to have to deal with, with the death of Zarqawi. But don't you look at this as really a pretty strong positive?

Mr. BYMAN: Absolutely. This is good news. This is someone who has committed a huge number of horrible atrocities and was finally brought to justice. The only thing we need to be careful about is even though this particular man is gone, it doesn't mean that the struggle has necessarily changed in the long term.

CHADWICK: He's an outsider. He's a Jordanian operating in Iraq, and I gather from what you write in Slate that there were people within the insurgency who thought indeed there should be an Iraqi who was the face of the insurgency.

Mr. BYMAN: Many people including many people in al-Qaida believe that the insurgency would be more effective if its most prominent face were an Iraqi. That Iraqi could unify people drawing not only on religion but also on nationalism. Zarqawi, because he was a foreigner, was suspected to a degree, just as any leader would be if they were not from the nation that they claim to represent.

CHADWICK: So are there Iraqi insurgent leaders ready to take his place? Do we know who those people are?

Mr. BYMAN: Who will take Zarqawi's place is an open question. First, although Zarqawi got tremendous publicity, it's not clear that he controlled most or even a large part of the Iraqi insurgents fighting on a day-to-day basis. With that in mind, you could have a number of leaders, many of whom are Iraqi, try to become the most prominent to compete for that position of leadership. Right now, it's not clear which one will emerge triumphant, and it's not clear if any of them will. They might continue to have low level struggles among themselves for the leadership even as they fight U.S. and Iraqi government forces.

CHADWICK: Daniel Byman is director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. You'll find his piece, Will Zarqawi's Death Be a Short-Lived Triumph?, up on Slate Magazine. Daniel, thank you.

Mr. BYMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Byman
Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.