Who's next? The US got its man. Now it must target the real threat in Iraq

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was never as important a figure in the insurgency as was claimed, and the manner of his death proved it, says Patrick Cockburn

The US military displayed the few tattered possessions of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, and those who died with him in the rubble of an isolated house half hidden by date palms outside the village of Hibhib in Diyala province, north-east of Baghdad.

The ease with which Iraqi police and US special forces were able to reach the house after the bombing without encountering hostile fire showed that Zarqawi was never the powerful guerrilla chieftain and leader of the Iraqi resistance that Washington has claimed for more than three years.

Amid the broken slabs of concrete and twisted metal was a woman's leopardskin-print nightgown, a magazine with a picture of Franklin Roosevelt and a leaflet apparently identifying a radio station in Latafiyah which might be a potential target for attack. It is not clear how long the little group had been in the house.

Zarqawi himself was dragged dying from the ruins of his house by Iraqi police and strapped to a stretcher. "Zarqawi did in fact survive the air strike," said Major General William Caldwell, the US military spokesman. Covered in blood, he survived a few minutes after the Americans arrived and muttered a few unintelligible words. "Zarqawi attempted to sort of turn away off the stretcher," said Gen Caldwell. "They - everybody - re-secured him back on to the stretcher, but he died almost immediately thereafter from the wounds he received from the air strike."

The only resistance encountered by American commandos was from local Sunni villagers in the village of Ghalabiya, near Hibhib, who thought the strangers were members of a Shia death squad. Villagers who were standing guard fired into the air on seeing the commandos, who in turn threw a grenade that killed five of the guards. American regular army troops later came to Ghalabiya to apologise and promise compensation to the families of the dead men.

By the time he died, Zarqawi's list of enemies included the US, the Iraqi government, many of the Sunni tribes and insurgent leaders. The biggest surprise surrounding his death last week was that it took so long to happen. And the manner in which he died confirms the belief that his military and political importance was always deliberately exaggerated by the US. He was a wholly obscure figure until he was denounced by then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, before the US Security Council on 5 February 2003. Mr Powell identified Zarqawi as the link between al-Qa'ida and Saddam Hussein, though no evidence for this was ever produced.

Indeed, Iraqi police documents, discovered later, showed that Saddam Hussein's security forces, far from collaborating with Zarqawi, were trying to arrest him. Arriving in Iraq in 2002, he had taken refuge in the mountain hideout of an extreme Islamic group near Halabja in Kurdistan, in an area which the Iraqi government did not control. As for al-Qa'ida, in Afghanistan Zarqawi had led a small group hostile to it, and was never a close adherent of Osama bin Laden.

Over the past three years Zarqawi has had a symbiotic relationship with US forces in Iraq. After the capture of Saddam in December 2003, Zarqawi was once again heavily publicised by US military and civilian spokesmen as the pre-eminent leader of the resistance. The aimwas to show that by invading Iraq, President Bush was fighting international terrorism. The US denunciations, and videos of Zarqawi beheading Western hostages, combined to spread his fame throughout the Muslim world, enabling him to recruit men and raise money easily. But for all his vaunted importance, US spokesmen admitted that Zarqawi's suicide bombers concentrated almost entirely on soft targets, and were responsible for very few of the 20,000 American casualties in Iraq.

It is difficult to track the movements of Zarqawi over the past three years, but until the summer of 2005 he appears to have lived in or around Ramadi in Anbar province west of Baghdad. The area is almost entirely Sunni, and largely under the control of the resistance, but increased US military activity in Ramadi last year reportedly forced him out. He was also heavily criticised by some other resistance groups and tribes for launching a sectarian war against the Shia which blackened the name of the insurgency at home and abroad.

In moving to Diyala province, north-east of Baghdad, Zarqawi was in more danger. The province is divided between Sunni and Shia along with some Kurds, who have been fighting a ferocious local civil war. Yesterday, for instance, police found the severed heads of two Sunni Arab brothers in the small town of Khan Bani Saad near Baquba, in Diyala province, where they had been kidnapped a week ago.

Also yesterday, and as if to demonstrate that there has been no let up since Zarqawi's death, one group, Ansar al-Sunna, posted a gruesome video showing militants interrogating and then beheading three Iraqis said to be part of a Shia "death squad". Such videos have become rare , so posting one now on a militant internet forum could be to show that the insurgency will remain as fierce as ever.

It is not clear how far American or Iraqi government statements about how they located Zarqawi should be believed. It appears unlikely that he was meeting his lieutenants, as was first suggested, given that only two other men died with him.

There are already signs that in propaganda terms, the US military - as well as the media - is missing Zarqawi as a single demonic figure who could be presented as the leader of the resistance. The myth of Zarqawi was attractive to Washington because it showed that anti-occupation resistance was foreign-inspired and linked to al-Qa'ida.

In reality the insurgency was almost entirely home grown, reliant on near-total support from the five million-strong Sunni community. Its military effectiveness was far more dependent on former officers of the Iraqi army and security forces than on al-Qa'ida. They may also have helped to boost Zarqawi's fame, because it was convenient for them to blame their worst atrocities on him.

One impact of the death of Zarqawi may be to lessen the threat of attacks in Jordan, his home country. It was he who was behind the bombing of hotels in Amman last year which killed 60 people. He was also the most unrelenting advocate in the resistance for attacks on Shia Muslims - 60 per cent of the Iraqi population - as heretics and enemies of the Sunni.

The killing of Zarqawi is a boost for the newly formed government of Nuri al-Maliki, but Iraqis did not fail to notice that when announcing it, he stood at the podium between Gen George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, and Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador. "It showed the limits of Maliki's independence from the Americans," noted one Iraqi commentator. "It would have been better if they had let him make the announcement standing alone."

Such moments demonstrate the gulf that remains in the Americans' understanding of what motivates so many Iraqis to take up arms against them. It also helps to explain why Zarqawi's demise may make very little difference to the strength of the insurgency.

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