BAGHDAD, Iraq—The killing of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a stunning victory for U.S. forces, but Iraq remains a nation beset by deeply rooted problems that threaten to push it deeper into chaos. There are few expectations that Zarqawi's death will change that.
Both President Bush and Gen. George Casey, the senior military commander in Iraq, were careful when announcing Zarqawi's death not to suggest that it was a turning point. U.S. diplomats remained poised for more violence.
"We can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without him," Bush said in Washington. "We can expect the sectarian violence to continue."
There are several issues, complex and murky, that remain:
_Most of the Sunni-led insurgency had little to do with Zarqawi. His bloodthirsty tactics, including beheadings and mass killings, angered Sunni leaders, some of whom turned against him. Those leaders see themselves as nationalists, fighting the American military presence. Most American military casualties in Iraq are caused by roadside bombs, a weapon typically used by Sunni nationalists, not by Zarqawi.
_Zarqawi appears to have come close to helping start a civil war, pitting Sunni Muslims against Shiite Muslims, by targeting Shiite innocents with car bombs and explosives-laden suicide bombers. Shiite militias, responding to the provocation, have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Sunni Muslims in the past year, and entire neighborhoods of Baghdad have been all but completely cleansed of residents of rival Muslim sects.
Flying over Baghdad in a helicopter recently, a Knight Ridder reporter saw street after street blocked with burned-out cars, tree stumps and concrete rubble to keep truckloads of Sunni or Shiite gunmen from rounding up the neighbors and killing them.
_Militias rule much of the country. Shiite militias control much of southern Iraq, the Kurdish militia controls the north, and the Sunnis in the west have turned to the insurgency as their de facto militia. The situation has pushed much of the bloodiest intra-Iraqi fighting to the central provinces—such as Baghdad, Diyala and Babil—where there are more mixed Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods.
_Iraq's security forces, while improving, are years away from being able to secure the nation. Units that used to throw down their weapons and run two years ago now stand and fight, but the task of turning the Iraqi army into a force that's loyal to the nation and not to sects has proved difficult. Iraqi police are widely regarded as being heavily infiltrated by Sunni insurgents in some areas and by Shiite militia members in others.
"The police are completely infiltrated by very sectarian forces who lend out police uniforms to hit squads," said a senior American military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "There are all manners of terrible things."
_Iran remains deeply involved in funneling arms and money to Shiite militias in Iraq, according to British and American military officials. That's made neighboring Sunni nations, such as Saudi Arabia, very nervous.
"There's an awful lot of money and influence being peddled by Iran," said Lt. Col. Patrick Donahoe, who commands a 4th Infantry Division battalion south of Baghdad. "You had the head of Karbala provincial police in Iran for two weeks for a police conference ... and (the mayor in the city of Hillah) orders my local Iraqi police to escort Iranian engineers from Musayyib to Karbala" to help build and repair Shiite shrines.
Should the trend continue, many analysts say, there could be a war by proxy in Iraq between the two nations. "The Iranians have problems with the Americans and they want to sort it out in Iraq," said Adnan Ali al-Kadhimi, the political adviser to former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. "And the Saudis don't want to see Iran have too much influence in Iraq. ... It is a competition for power."
Interviews in Cairo, Egypt, and Jordan on Thursday found many who were sympathetic to Zarqawi, though it wasn't clear whether that would translate into more foreign fighters coming to Iraq. "He's a martyr," declared Hassan Ibrahim, 36, an Egyptian engineer who was visibly saddened by the news of Zarqawi's death. "It's known that the Americans fight Islam, and he was just following Islamic law. That's why they put him on the terrorist list."
When the killing of Zarqawi was announced Thursday, Casey quickly reminded Iraqis and Americans that a long fight ahead remains.
"Although the designated leader of al-Qaida in Iraq is now dead, the terrorist organization still poses a threat, as its members will continue to try to terrorize the Iraqi people and destabilize their government as it moves toward stability and prosperity," Casey said. "Iraqi forces, supported by the coalition, will continue to hunt terrorists that threaten the Iraqi people until terrorism is eradicated in Iraq."
On the day that Zarqawi died, at least 12 Iraqis were killed and 14 were wounded in bombings and shootings in Baghdad and Diyala.
On Thursday, the day after Zarqawi's death, at least 27 people were killed—some reports had the figure as high as 40—and at least 79 were injured in a series of bombings in and around Baghdad.
Many U.S. military officials think that, if given enough time, they can wade through Iraq's complexities—get the Sunni insurgency more involved in politics, pressure Shiites to disarm their militias, continue infrastructure improvements—and bring peace to the country.
But many voice concern that if U.S. sentiment against the war continues to drag down lawmakers' approval ratings as midterm congressional elections approach, Washington may push for a hasty withdrawal.
That, they say, would risk the Balkanization of Iraq.
"The effect of drawing down too quickly is that this country would go into three states—a Sunni state, a Shiite state and a state in the north protected by (Kurdish militia) Peshmerga," said the senior U.S. military official. "It's a recipe for total disaster and it terrifies me to think what would happen; this entire operation would have been for naught."
Asked how likely he thought that scenario was, the officer said, "It's not an, `OK, my God, what if?'—we're headed there."
(Hannah Allam and Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Miret el-Naggar contributed from Cairo. Leila Fadel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed from Jordan.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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