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Simon: After Zarqawi Death, Iraq Violence Likely to Continue at High Levels

Interviewee: Steven Simon, Lecturer, Dartmouth College
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
June 8, 2006


Steven Simon, CFR's top expert on Middle East terrorism, says although the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by U.S. forces may give President Bush "a boost" in political standing at home, he does not foresee any significant slackening in the Iraqi insurgency. Simon, the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, says "the level of violence will continue at destabilizing levels for the foreseeable future. If I were Zarqawi my last words would have been 'let us thy servant depart in peace.' He's done his job."

With the naming of ministers for the interior, defense, and national security portfolios, Simon says, "Iraq is simply never going to prosper if it can't get its sectarian violence under control. Now there's a leader in the interior ministry, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seems committed to getting a grip on the violence despite the fact that he had, in the past, been such a staunch defender of Shiite prerogatives. [Both] might bode well, but time will tell."

In Baghdad early this morning our time, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by American forces, and he won the ratification of his three important national security officials: the interior minister, the defense minister, and the national security adviser. Let's start with Zarqawi, who was the head of al Qaeda in Iraq. How important is it to the overall American and Iraqi effort that Zarqawi is gone?

Look, the death of Zarqawi is important for the U.S. administration if it translates into somewhat stronger domestic support for the U.S. intervention in the United States. Support has faded quickly this year. It's clear, as the president has said, that we've got to maintain a fairly large force presence in Iraq, at least for the next couple of years. That being the case, domestic support is essential. So if the death of Zarqawi provides the president a boost in that department, well, then all to the good.

On the ground, of course, the ability to pinpoint Zarqawi's location and that of several of his top aides would seem to indicate the intelligence has improved significantly. And the military in Baghdad said there also were seventeen follow-up raids on other al-Qaeda hiding places based on information received in recent weeks but that they'd held off acting on until they could get Zarqawi. How do you evaluate this? Most people have been saying Zarqawi's death isn't going to stop the insurgency. The spokesmen are being very cautious, including the President, but is there a possibility that you could get a breakup of the insurgency?

I doubt it. And it's not clear that this was an intelligence breakthrough. In the sense that it represents a decisive penetration and subsequent dismantling of this wing of a very complex insurgency, what seems to have happened is for once the specificity of the intelligence information was timely. That is to say, it was both specific and timely. And what's been happening until now was that either the information wasn't specific enough for targeting purposes, or it was highly specific, but it was just a little bit too late.

Zarqawi has had at least three brushes with death over the past couple of years because of this, I guess. This was bad luck, really, on the part of the U.S. command in Iraq. So we've come close before. This time it worked. Why this would represent any more of a dramatic breakthrough than the previous close calls is not really clear. I don't think we can be resting on our laurels. That's number one. Number two, this insurgency is composed of many moving parts, and the level of violence is going to remain extremely high. The level of violence will continue at destabilizing levels for the foreseeable future. If I were Zarqawi my last words would have been, "Let us thy servant depart in peace." He's done his job.

In setting up this disparate insurgency operation, or at least taking the lead in it, it's unclear to me how much of an impact Zarqawi himself had. In other words, if you cut off the head does that really affect anything?

We like to think in terms of these weird isomorphisms. You know, "break the back" of the insurgency, "cut off its head," "step on its toes," "kick it in the shins," pick your metaphor. But it's actually not like any of those entities; it's really more like a deadly mold, and it's festering, and these kinds of things are extremely difficult to extirpate. As we're seeing now in Iraq, Zarqawi's contribution was twofold.

The first is he turbocharged the violence. In an insurgency that's characterized by a competitive process and an outbidding dynamic, that tended to raise the overall level of violence. And the second thing he did of course was to spur the sectarian piece of it, the intercommunal violence, and, you know, that's what's going to endanger prospects for the viability of the new Iraq. So these were important contributions, and it's in that sense, I used the expression, "Let us thy servant depart in peace." His value to the insurgency, if I can put it that way, was diminishing significantly. The law of diminishing returns applies to everything, and it applied as well to Zarqawi's value in the context of this insurgency. Now I think there's another interesting piece of this, which is a more interesting one in a way; namely how will Zarqawi's death affect the construction of the networks that he was working on so assiduously in Europe.

I'm not an expert on this, but I would tend to believe that his name was so well known that he had a certain charisma, that his disappearance might reduce the attraction for people coming into the operation, but maybe I'm completely wrong.

Well, no, you might have something there. One of the things European intelligence and law enforcement officials have said is that Zarqawi's persona and the aura surrounding Zarqawi had been a factor in the flow of foreign fighters from Europe to Iraq. So, whether the propaganda value of the persona diminishes upon his martyrdom remains to be seen. There were some that would argue that it might even increase in potency because of the perception of the sacrifice that he himself made.

Now that Iraq has a government, is that going to make things easier on the security front, or do you only just hope?

We should always hope. The key piece here is the interior ministry [now to be headed by Shiite Jawad al-Bolani]. There was no way that it was going to go to a Sunni or a Kurd. It was destined to go to a Shiite. This is problematic. It was ineluctable but nonetheless troubling because so much of the anti-Sunni violence has been carried out in collusion with interior ministry personnel. Iraq is simply never going to prosper if it can't get its sectarian violence under control. Now there's a leader in the interior ministry, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seems committed to getting a grip on the violence despite the fact that he had, in the past, been such a staunch defender of Shiite prerogatives. [Both] might bode well, but time will tell.

And I guess time will also tell on the politics in the United States. Would you expect this to give the president a political boost?

Yes, I think there will be an uptick in support. But the overall level of support for the U.S. presence in Iraq now is so low that the increase is not likely to be large in relative terms. And that's going to continue to be a problem, but since we are committed to maintaining a force presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future, it's better if there's public support for it.

The President, I must say, was very stubborn as his ratings went down about sticking with Iraq. I suppose any good news would be seen as at least strengthening his resolve.

That's true, but events on the ground can undermine that, and this is what happened with the January [2005] election. It was a wonderful and moving episode in Iraqi history, and the drama of the occasion was reflected in the president's standing at home. But that standing was quickly eroded by the fact that this magnificent event seemed to fade into an equally dramatic orgy of violence.

I suppose the sectarian violence is a key issue now. There were some signs Sunni leaders were trying to bring this under control themselves because the Sunnis were getting killed in large numbers, so it would be interesting to see if there's any kind of de facto truce in this.

Scholars look back to the famous Christmas Truce, in 1914 on the Western front, where the two sides sort of voluntarily stopped shooting at one another. There were, of course, believers on both sides who realized that was not a sustainable posture for their forces, and they developed tactics to stir the pot and get the shooting going again, and I think you'll see the same phenomenon reflected on the ground in Iraq, where the hardliners on both sides will be able to control the situation by stoking the violence at those times when it seems to be dying down by the broad consent of the constituencies on both sides.

What about morale in the military? The U.S. military's come under a lot of heat lately for problems in places like Haditha where there were probably murders committed by the Marines. Do you think this gives a boost to the fighting men?

Yes, I would think so, and they're badly in need of one.

I watch the morning news when I wake up every morning at home, and this was about the first time in a very long time that the news from Baghdad was definitely positive.

Well, you know, Zarqawi was such a perfect demon, and he was so villainous, that we were able to project all our fears and all our animus onto this one symbol, and he'll be missed for that. But we'll see if it really makes a difference.

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