At 6:15 p.m. local time on Wednesday, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the al Qaida chieftain in Iraq, was
meeting in a nondescript house in Hibhib, a hamlet about five miles northeast of Baquba, with 8
of his top aides.
The meeting ended early. Two 500 lb bombs dropped by U.S. Air Force F-16s obliterated the
house and killed all inside.
The fighter-bombers were guided there by members of Task Force 145, a team of special operators
assembled for the explicit purpose of hunting down the al Qaida leadership in Iraq.
TF 145 had been directed to the farmhouse by tips from Iraqi civilians, and by information from
interrogations of two al Qaida leaders captured in raids in May.
>From a purely military standpoint, the loss of his lieutenants probably was a greater blow to
al Qaida than was the loss of Zarqawi himself.
Zarqawi had been targeting Shia civilians in an effort to provoke a civil war. This was
causing dissension with other insurgent groups, and within al Qaida itself. (This dissension
explains in part why captured al Qaida leaders have been so talkative.)
Zarqawi also was straining the alliance of convenience between al Qaida and the mullahs in
Tehran, who have been supplying insurgents with sophisticated roadside bombs. Sunni extremists
and Shia extremists don't normally get along, but their shared enmity with the United States
had caused them to work together.
Zarqawi was jeopardizing this tentative cooperation. Earlier this month he described
Hezbollah, the leading Iranian-backed terror group, as a "cover for Israel."
Web logger Michael Totten asked Mohammed Afif, a Hezbollah leader in Lebanon, what he thought
of Zarqawi's group. "We hate them," Afif responded. "They call us cockroaches and murder our
"Given that Zarqawi has become a loose cannon and his actions are handicapping al Qaida's
efforts, it seems reasonable to expect that an accident will befall him at some point in the
near future," said StrategyPage's Jim Dunnigan in a prescient post on the very day Zarqawi was
But if the loss of Zarqawi the man won't hurt al Qaida all that much, the loss of Zarqawi the
legend is devastating.
"As he committed atrocity after atrocity, seemingly with impunity, Zarqawi became a mythic
figure in part of the world where mythology has vastly more cachet than reality," said former
federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy.
Zarqawi's death is a huge psychological and political boost to the fledgling Iraqi government.
Iraqis danced in the streets. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki pushed through a parliament giddy
at the news his choices for the critical ministries of defense and interior (which is in charge
of the police), finally completing formation of his government.
Zarqawi's legendary brutality had made many Iraqis fearful of cooperating with their
government. Now that he is dead, what has been a stream of tips could become a river.
"This means that every foreign jihadist leader will be looking over his shoulder in the days to
come...wondering if there is a traitor in his midst and his downfall is just around the
corner," said former CIA officer Peter Brookes, now with the Heritage Foundation in Washington
Zarqawi's death also sends a message to fence sitters among Iraq's Sunnis. For those who wish
to be on the winning side, it is more clear which side that is.
Though the political benefits are primary, let's not give short shrift to the military
benefits. No fighting organization can lose so much of its senior leadership without serious
degradation of its performance and morale. The terrorists killed Wednesday can be replaced,
but neither quickly nor easily, and the replacements will lack the skill and experience of the
And things will get worse for al Qaida. Thanks to leads from "a treasure trove" of documents
recovered from the rubble, Coalition forces launched 17 raids in greater Baghdad Thursday.
News of the demise of the murderous thug was greeted sourly on the left-liberal blogs
Democratic Underground and Daily Kos, where posters feared Zarqawi's death would boost support
for President Bush and the Iraq war.
Much of the news media also viewed Zarqawi's death chiefly through the prism of domestic
politics. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow clearly was irritated when a reporter asked
him Thursday: "Will the Zarqawi success help the president on immigration?"
The capture of Saddam Hussein didn't end the insurgency in Iraq. Killing Zarqawi won't either.
But it should reduce sharply the number of bombings and beheadings of civilians. To those of
us who think winning the war on terror is more important than embarrassing the president,
that's a positive step.