Shia and Sunni are divided by militant leader's demise

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The Independent Online

Many Iraqis welcomed the news of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's assassination, but the American airstrike has, once again, exposed the country's sectarian faultlines.

The contrast could not be much neater between the Shia slums, where police excitably brandished their guns and fired jubilantly into the sky, and the volatile Anbar province, heart of the predominantly Sunni insurgency. Although many residents are tiring of the violence hampering everyday life, there was support for Zarqawi in some quarters. "This is a black day in Ramadi," said Abid al-Duleimi, 40. "This is a great loss for all the Sunnis." He added: "If they killed Zarqawi, more than one Zarqawi will come out."

Violence has soared in Ramadi in the past two months and US forces have called repeated strikes by air and artillery on the city to try to quell the attackers.

Zarqawi frequently vilified Shia as infidels and his followers targeted Shia civilians and mosques in efforts to foment sectarian civil war. So there was cautious celebration in the Shia holy city of Najaf after news broke of his death.

"Killing Zarqawi made us very happy... but we have some fears that the followers of this criminal will try to undermine this happiness," said Abdul-Amir Ahmed Ali, 56, a carpenter. He believed Zarqawi's death would leave a leadership vacuum in the insurgency - a view questioned by some analysts, who believe the attacks lack national coordination - and called on the Iraqi government to strike quickly against other insurgents.

"I hope the government will hit with an iron fist," said Mr Ali. "I hope this day will be turning point in the life of the Iraqis."

Hopes were similarly high in the sprawling Shia enclave of Sadr City in north-east Baghdad, home to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "We hope the killing of Zarqawi and his aides, those who killed many Iraqis, will finish all the terror in Iraq and let everybody live safely," pleaded a baker, Anwar Abdul Hussein.

There was scepticism among others it would suffocate the sectarian violence crippling large parts of the country. "The killing of Zarqawi will not change the bad security situation unless the Iraqi government eliminates all the terrorists," said Yassir al-Hamdani, 25, a student in the mainly Kurdish northern city of Mosul. "But still," he conceded, "his death is a big strike against terror."

Others compared Zarqawi's death with the symbolic capture of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. "It reminds me of the toppling of Saddam three years ago," said Adul-Wahid Khalil, a teacher in Mosul. "That gave the Iraqis more freedom and now we hope we will have peace."

Followers of Zarqawi said his "martyrdom" would inspire them to escalate the insurgency. "The death of our leaders... only makes us more determined to continue the jihad," said a statement on an Islamist extremists' website.