Funeral for Evil

The killing of al-Zarqawi deals a blow to al-Qaeda and gives the White House a much-needed dose of good news from Iraq. But the insurgency is not dead, which still leaves open the question of when the U.S. can start bringing the troops home

Time Magazine/June 19, 2006
By James Carney and Mike Allen

Sometimes even presidents have to wait for the news. George W. Bush was meeting with aides in the Oval Office last Wednesday when he turned to National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley for an update on Iraq. "Do you have news for me?" Bush asked. Hadley did. "Sir, I'd like to talk to you alone," Hadley said, clearing the room of other aides. When one of them returned, Bush let the aide in on the secret: "I think we got Zarqawi."

If he sounded a little stunned, it wasn't surprising. The Commander in Chief hasn't had much practice in positive developments in the past nine months. And so, as White House speechwriters went to work on the remarks the President would deliver from the Rose Garden during breakfast news shows, they tried to strike a tone of "tempered optimism," according to an aide who worked on the speech. When Bush appeared before the cameras, he sounded muted, speaking of his hope that the death of Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi would allow Iraq's infant government to "turn the tide" of a war that could still mar Bush's presidency. "Zarqawi is dead," Bush said, "but the difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues."

It has been 39 months since the U.S. invaded Iraq, and after so many turned corners that have led to dead ends, Bush wisely shunned any predictions about how much good would come from al-Zarqawi's elimination. But the sense of elation in the U.S. command was impossible to contain. With his penchant for videotaped beheadings, spectacular suicide mass killings and Houdini-style escapes from U.S. pursuers, the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi had become the face of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, complete with a $25 million bounty on his head. Bush had all but branded him Hitler, referring to him more than 100 times in speeches as wanting to "sow as much havoc as possible" and "destroy American life." After two 500-lb. bombs pulverized his hideout north of Baghdad last Wednesday evening (10:12 a.m. in Washington), the terrorist managed to hold on briefly, mumbling and struggling as he died in the ruins on a stretcher brought by soldiers. His death was a desperately needed break for the White House and the U.S. military. But is it a turning point or just a temporary reprieve from Iraq's seemingly interminable bloodletting? "No one knows," says a Bush aide. "But it's a good problem to have."

The reality is that the removal of al-Zarqawi may unearth as many new dilemmas as it solves. The hit has forced the Administration to confront a messy breach emerging among top aides. While some officials believe the U.S. should maintain its troop strength for the foreseeable future, others have argued that the Administration should capitalize on any improvements in the situation to accelerate the handover to Iraqis. Administration aides tell TIME that West Wing officials had hoped to reduce the number of troops in Iraq from today's 129,000 to about 100,000 by the end of the year, and possibly before the midterm congressional elections. But the country's slide toward an all-out civil war in recent months had begun to convince them that a drawdown anytime soon would not be feasible. Aides say the White House still wants to preserve the option of eventually saying the Iraqis are prepared to assume greater responsibility, allowing the U.S. to "stand down," as Bush puts it in speeches. That's why Administration officials continue to credit the Baghdad government with every incremental bit of progress in the country. It was no coincidence that U.S. commanders highlighted the relatively passive participation of Iraqi forces in the al-Zarqawi raid and that Administration officials praised new Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for naming his last three government ministers--even though it took the Iraqis almost two months to agree on them. "The only way they can ever bring down the troop number is to make a strong case to the American people that the people of Iraq are doing well," a former senior Administration official says.

For the moment, Bush advisers say, a drawdown of U.S. forces isn't imminent. Bush plans to hold a two-day summit at Camp David this week in which Iraqi leaders will be beamed in by secure video lines for discussions about how to curb sectarian violence and kick-start reconstruction. Aides stressed this will not be a troop-withdrawal meeting--but the White House still faces pressure to show some kind of progress toward reducing U.S. involvement in Iraq. In Congress, both parties are scrambling to find ways to convince voters that they can bring troops home soon. Though Republicans on Capitol Hill danced giddily on al-Zarqawi's crater, they complain privately that what they consider Bush's stubbornness--his conviction that to withdraw would be to admit error--could cost them control of the House, if not the Senate. "If the war goes well, Republicans do better," says Connecticut G.O.P. Representative Chris Shays, who faces a tough re-election fight this year. "If the war goes badly, then Republicans will not fare as well. That's the reality." Democrats, though eager to congratulate the troops for knocking out such a heinous enemy, were just as eager to move on to the larger picture, arguing that al-Zarqawi's demise would have limited impact on the sectarian killings tearing Iraq apart. In the Senate, Democrats John Kerry of Massachusetts and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin are planning to offer amendments to a defense-spending bill that will call for U.S. combat forces to be withdrawn. "Our troops have done their job in Iraq, and they've done it valiantly," said Kerry, Bush's opponent in the 2004 presidential election. "It's time to work with the new Iraqi government to bring our combat troops home by the end of this year." Kerry told TIME, "Our troops did an incredible job killing this thug, and now he's out of the way."

Evaluating when the U.S. might be able to draw down its forces may hinge on the answer to another question: What will the absence of al-Zarqawi mean on the ground? U.S. military officials caution that the death of al-Zarqawi may not do much to erode the insurgency's strength in the short term, if measured by the number of attacks and casualties. Abu al-Bara, an al-Qaeda commander in Iraq, spoke to TIME and claimed the organization has a succession plan in place. "Let them be ready for our revenge in the name of our brothers and sisters who became martyrs on Iraqi soil," he says. Al-Zarqawi's foreign fighters always were merely a sliver of the bad guys in Iraq: intelligence estimates suggest al-Zarqawi commanded a few hundred men, of whom only a fraction were foreign jihadis. By most estimates that's less than 5% of the 25,000 to 50,000 insurgents believed to be operating inside the country. While al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq faction has been linked to some of the worst attacks in Iraq, homegrown Iraqi insurgents have shown themselves perfectly capable of building and deploying the improvised explosives that continue to bedevil and kill fellow citizens and U.S. troops. The sectarian violence al-Zarqawi helped spark with brutal attacks on Shi'ite "infidels" has taken root in the lawless country, with illegal militias and death squads murdering thousands of Iraqis in the past six months.

But al-Zarqawi did have an impact that measured far greater than the number of his fighters, which is why his demise was as much a psychological victory as an operational one. If the strike changes history in Iraq, it will be a matter more of momentum than mechanics. For the thousands of Americans fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of what the Pentagon calls a "Long War" against terrorism, the ability to pause, even for an hour, to revel in a clear military success was welcome. "A cult figure is dead because people he trusted betrayed him," a senior U.S. government official mused on his back porch in Washington on the night of the announcement, smoking a cigar and sipping wine. "They'll be studying this op years from now at the war colleges."

Iraqis weren't waiting. Most seem just to want their country back, from the insurgents and from the Americans. In the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, locals drove around as if the entire town were taking part in a wedding procession, putting flowers on their cars and thrusting guns into the air. Mohammed Kareem, 36, spoke of a simple hope--"to live a peaceful life." Despite al-Zarqawi's death, that aspiration, as even President Bush would concede, may take years to achieve. The challenge for Bush is to convince Americans as well as Iraqis like Kareem that patience deserves to be a virtue again.

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