WASHINGTON—The death of terrorist leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, while a major tactical success, is unlikely to have a significant impact on the struggle against al-Qaida and its far-flung terrorist network of spin-offs and imitators, current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials said Thursday.
President Bush termed Zarqawi's death in a strike coordinated by U.S., Iraqi and Jordanian security forces "a severe blow to al-Qaida."
But a half-dozen officials, who have decades of experience tracking and analyzing Islamic militants, offered a more cautious view.
"To me it's not a severe blow. It's a dent," said Dennis Pluchinsky, a former State Department terrorism analyst. "It will probably have a minimal impact on the insurgency in Iraq and minimal impact on the global jihad movement, which is now self-sustaining."
Michael Scheuer, the first chief of the CIA's Osama bin Laden tracking unit, called Zarqawi's death a "tremendous success" that will demoralize his organization and throw it into turmoil in the short term.
But in the long run, he said, it's likely to have little impact on the largely sectarian bloodletting in Iraq and "as the dust settles, it may be a negative" because bin Laden may actually welcome Zarqawi's death.
Zarqawi, a bloody thug who liked to call his own shots, never had more than an uneasy alliance of convenience with bin Laden's al-Qaida network, the current and former officials said.
And the Bush administration made him out to be more significant—both in life and in death—than he was, said three current U.S. military and intelligence officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized to speak to the news media.
The Bush administration focused attention on Zarqawi, beginning with then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 2003 speech to the U.N. Security Council, in an attempt to link the war in Iraq to al-Qaida. Later, the White House blamed the chaos that engulfed Iraq after the U.S. invasion on "foreign terrorists" such as the Jordanian-born Zarqawi.
Several public statements about Zarqawi—that he had a leg amputated in Baghdad and hosted a meeting of terrorist chieftains in Syria—turned out to be inaccurate.
"It's a fair statement to say that Zarqawi's role has been overplayed somewhat," said retired senior CIA official Paul Pillar, former deputy director of the agency's counterterrorist center.
There were two reasons, Pillar said. The Jordanian provided evidence, however flimsy, of an al-Qaida presence in Iraq. And his public denunciations of democracy made him a "poster child" for the White House argument that the war in Iraq was being fought against the enemies of democracy in the Arab world.
In fact, Zarqawi and bin Laden, who came from vastly different backgrounds, disliked each other from their first meeting and sparred over tactics and strategy.
"There was mutual advantage," Pillar said. "But not a command relationship."
Pillar and others said Zarqawi benefited from the al-Qaida brand and set himself up as the self-styled leader of "al-Qaida in the land of the two rivers," an ancient name for Iraq. Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, who are hiding in Afghanistan or Pakistan, received in return a channel to try to influence events in far-off Iraq.
But al-Qaida leaders were alarmed by Zarqawi's rampage of beheadings and car bombings and his targeting of Shiite Muslims in an effort to instigate a Shiite-Sunni war.
Zarqawi rejected an admonition from Zawahiri to stop targeting Shiites, who are the majority of Iraq's 26 million people.
In a letter to Zarqawi that fell into American hands last October, Zawahri laid out long-range plans that called for concentrating attacks against U.S. forces with the aim of driving them out of Iraq and then the region. The next phase was to target Israel and authoritarian Arab regimes, especially the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Only then were Shiites to be dealt with.
"Zarqawi was getting way off the al-Qaida reservation in terms of his war on (Iraq's) Shiites," said Scheuer, the former CIA official.
One of the counterterrorism officials said that Zarqawi's star appeared to have fallen in recent months, and intelligence reporting suggested that may have been in part because Zawahiri and bin Laden were encouraging their allies in Iraq to abandon him.
Close counterterrorism cooperation led to Zarqawi's death, Middle Eastern diplomats and U.S. officials said. They said that Jordan played a key role in helping track him. After his organization claimed credit for hotel bombings in Amman, Jordan, that killed 60 people in November, Jordan's highly effective security service aggressively sought to penetrate the group in Iraq, said one diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.
That operation apparently led to Sheik Abdul-Rahman, Zarqawi's spiritual adviser, who was reportedly trailed by a U.S. special forces team to a previously known safe house where he, Zarqawi and others were killed.
Merissa Khurma, a spokeswoman for Jordan's Embassy in Washington, confirmed Jordan's cooperation in general terms. The military operation "also involved a Jordanian security role," she said, declining to elaborate.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-ZARQAWI