Al-Zarqawi: A life drenched in blood

It was the end of a strange but murderous career. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a little-known Jordanian petty criminal turned Islamic fundamentalist fanatic until he was denounced by the US in 2003 as an insurgent leader of great importance.

This enabled him to recruit men and raise money to wage a cruel war, mostly against Iraqi civilians. In a macabre innovation, he staged beheadings of Western hostages such as Ken Bigley which were then uploaded to the internet to ensure maximum publicity.

His death in an air strike by American F-16s while in a house north of Baghdad with seven associates, is important in Iraq because he was the most openly sectarian of the Sunni resistance leaders, butchering Shias as heretics as worthy of death as any foreign invader.

His chosen instrument was the suicide bomber usually recruited from outside the country. Their targets were almost invariably young Shia men desperate for work, queuing for jobs as policemen or soldiers. Few of the 20,000 US soldiers killed and wounded in Iraq in the past three years have died at the hands of Zarqawi's men, according to the US military.

George Bush and Tony Blair welcomed news of the death of the leader of al-Qa'ida in Iraq yesterday. But, paradoxically, among those most pleased by his elimination may be the other insurgent leaders. "He was an embarrassment to the resistance itself," said Ghassan al-Attiyah, an Iraqi commentator. "They never liked him taking all the limelight and the Americans exaggerated his role."

Zarqawi owed his rise to the US in two ways. His name was unknown until he was denounced on 5 February 2003 by Colin Powell, who was the US Secretary of State, before the UN Security Council as the link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida. There turned out to be no evidence for this connection and Zarqawi did not at this time belong to al-Qa'ida. But Mr Powell's denunciation made him a symbol of resistance to the US across the Muslim world. It also fitted with Washington's political agenda that attacking Iraq was part of the war on terror.

The invasion gave Zarqawi a further boost. Within months of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein the whole five-million-strong Sunni Arab community in Iraq appeared united in opposition to the occupation. Cheering crowds gathered every time a US soldier was shot or an American vehicle blown up. Armed resistance was popular and for the first time Sunni militants known as the Salafi, religious fundamentalists demonstrating their faith by religious war or jihad, had a bedrock of support in Iraq. Osama bin Laden and his fighters never had this degree of acceptance in Afghanistan and were forced to hire local tribesmen to take part in their propaganda videos.

The next critical moment in Zarqawi's career was the capture of Saddam Hussein on 15 December 2003. Previously US military and civilian spokesmen had blamed everything on the former Iraqi leader.

No sooner was Saddam captured than the US spokesmen began to mention Zarqawi's name in every sentence. "If the weather is bad they will blame it on Zarqawi," an Iraqi journalist once said to me. It emerged earlier this year that the US emphasis on Zarqawi as the prime leader of the Iraqi resistance was part of a carefully calculated propaganda programme. A dubious letter from Zarqawi was conveniently discovered. One internal briefing document quoted by The Washington Post records Brigadier General Kimmitt, the chief US military spokesman at the time, as saying: "The Zarqawi psy-op programme is the most successful information campaign to date." The US campaign was largely geared towards the American public and above all the American voter. It was geared to proving that the invasion of Iraq was a reasonable response to the 9/11 attacks. This meant it was necessary to show al-Qa'ida was strong in Iraq and play down the fact that this had only happened after the invasion.

In an increasingly anti-American Arab world hostility from the US made it easy for Zarqawi develop his own organisation and finance it. The siege of Fallujah in April 2004 and the storming of the city by US Marines in November the same year saw al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad), whose name was later changed to al-Qa'ida's Organisation in Iraq, become a powerful force. The suicide bombing campaign had already begun in November 2003 and was from the beginning directed against Shias as much as foreign troops or officials.

Zarqawi's war was devised to have the maximum political impact. There was the beheading of foreign captives shown on videos and broadcast via the internet. He was an enemy to America's liking. Though US military officials in Baghdad openly admitted that few insurgents were non-Iraqi, Zarqawi's Jordanian origins were useful in suggesting that the insurrection was orchestrated from outside Iraq.

There were always going to be sectarian and ethnic differences between Shia, Sunni and Kurd after the overthrow of Saddam. This would have given a constituency to Zarqawi whatever happened but he also did much to deepen sectarian hatred by killing Iraqi Shia whenever he could. This destabilised the Iraqi government and it also meant that his anti-Shia fanaticism was increasing acceptable in the Sunni community as the Shia retaliated in 2005.

His death may lessen Shia-Sunni sectarianism but it probably comes too late. Diyala, the province where he was killed, is already seeing a savage civil war in which Iraq's communities hunt each other down and whoever is in the minority is forced to flee, fight or die.

A life of violence

Afghanistan

Zarqawi went to Afghanistan in 1999 to set up his own training camp and forged close links with al-Qa'ida.

UN Bombing

Zarqawi's group bombed the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003, killing the UN's top envoy to Iraq.

Beheadings

Zarqawi is believed to have beheaded two US hostages, Nick Berg and Eugene Armstrong, in 2004 and been involved in the killing of Kenneth Bigley.

Amman Bombing

Suicide bombers from Zarqawi's group staged a triple attack in Jordan in November last year, killing 60.

Suicide Bombings

Zarqawi's group claimed a number of attacks in Iraq. A bomb in Hilla last year killed 125, the single deadliest incident.

Sectarian Violence

Last week Zarqawi released an audiotape urging fellow Sunnis to kill Shias.

Sport
Premier League Live
footballLIVE Follow all the Premier League action as it happens
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + echSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
James Argent from Towie is missing, police say
peopleTV star had been reported missing
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone