Death gives Iraq hope

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - the godfather of terrorism in Iraq, public enemy number one in that country, and a man widely believed to have personally beheaded British hostage Ken Bigley - is dead.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - the godfather of terrorism in Iraq, public enemy number one in that country, and a man widely believed to have personally beheaded British hostage Ken Bigley - is dead.

What better way could there have been of stemming an apparently unremitting flow of bad news from Iraq? And that was not the only reason for hoping that the worst may be over. Soon after Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that al-Zarqawi had been "eliminated", his country's parliament approved the appointment of ministers of defence, the interior and national security. The first post is filled by a Sunni, General Abdul-Qadre Mohammed Jassim, and the last two by Shi'ites, Jawad al-Bolani and Sherwan al-Waili.

It would have been naïve to suppose that with al-Zarqawi removed from the conflict, and with the key portfolios in the nation's democratic government now filled, Iraq would speedily see an end to the barbaric slaughter that has become a daily feature of life there.

Neither Tony Blair nor President George W Bush made that mistake in his immediate reactions yesterday. And only a few hours later there was a car bomb explosion in a Shi'ite area of Baghdad.

Both leaders were pleased and encouraged by al-Zarqawi's death, however, and with good reason.

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He was the leader of al Qaida in Iraq, and his death is a major setback to that organisation in a theatre of conflict that is seen by many as crucial to the outcome of a global struggle between the forces of 'Islamic' terrorism and democracy. Furthermore, he had become an iconic figure for those sympathetic to his views.

He was not merely a figurehead, but also most definitely a hands-on operator.

The decapitation of Mr Bigley is not the only such atrocity he is supposed to have committed himself.

He seemed to take sadistic pleasure in indiscriminate slaughter and terror and to relish his reputation as the most savage of the brutal.

It was not murder and torture just for its own sake, however.

Al-Zarqawi did have a form of political philosophy or world view. It was set out a few days ago in a taped four-hour address/rant in which he called for all-out civil war between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites, and denounced the principal Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, as an "atheist".

"Oh Sunni people, wake up, pay attention and prepare to confront the poisons of the Shi'ite snakes who are afflicting you with all agonies since the invasion of Iraq. Forget about those advocating the end of sectarianism and calling for national unity", he declared.

Al-Zarqawi was in no way inhibited from denouncing foreign interventionism in Iraq, and attempts to shore up national unity, by the fact that he, as a Jordanian, was a foreign interventionist. But in terms of the imposition of terror, no one could accuse him of failing to practise what he preached. It was presumably no coincidence that the part of Iraq in which he was killed had suffered a particularly vile surge in sectarian violence (including the severing of 17 heads that were found in fruit boxes) in recent days.

It is of course possible that another psychopath will quickly step into al-Zarqawi's shoes.

Maybe that is even probable. But it is not inevitable. Like does not always follow like. Stalin was not succeeded by another Stalin.

The successor to Nelson Mandela was not another Nelson Mandela.

Al-Zarqawi's demise does reinforce the opportunity that the now- complete al-Maliki government has to pull its country back from the abyss.

That administration reflects the democratic will of a large majority of the Iraqi population, and the principal driver of sectarian violence has now been removed from the scene. If there is a lull in the killing, which is often of a tit-for-tat nature, the government will have a better chance of establishing itself. And if that happens, the prospects for a withdrawal of US and British forces will be much improved.

Al-Zarqawi was not the easiest ally or disciple for Osama bin Laden to operate through and admire.

There were tensions, not least because his methods were so extreme that he could be counter-productive to the cause.

But al Qaida paid tribute to him yesterday in giving us the "joyous news of the martyrdom" and in proclaiming that the "holy war" goes on. It will indeed. In Iraq. In Afghanistan. And in many other places - including, it has to be expected, the already targeted cities of New York, Washington and London.

The link between Iraq and al Qaida was thought by many to be tenuous when war was declared against Saddam Hussein in March 2003.

Mr Blair and Mr Bush did not. And whether one agreed or disagreed with them at the time, the connection ought to be crystal clear to everyone now. The prime minister spelt it out at his press conference yesterday. "In Iraq and Afghanistan, al Qaida has taken a stand", he said.

"They know that if progress and democracy take root in those two previously failed and terrorised states, then their values of violence and hatred against those who disagree with them will in turn be uprooted. That's why they fight and why they will continue to fight very hard. But it is also why we should fight back and do so as a unified international community."

The depressing thing for me in listening to this was that he has to keep saying the same thing.

Our forces are in Iraq with the consent of its democratically elected government - resulting from an election with a higher turnout, despite the violence, than in our last general election - and with the backing of a UN mandate.

When that administration is assaulted by such a Neanderthal as al-Zarqawi, who wanted to destroy all the freedoms we take for granted, there should be no question of failing to support it and of running away.

In the culture of our liberal chattering classes, however, there is still a marked inclination to kiss the boot that would walk all over it. It manifested itself in a wish to appease Hitler and to cuddle up to Stalin.

And in recent years it has provided a gallery of hand-wringers and strong-minded Bush-haters for al-Zarqawi and his ilk to play to.