View From Baghdad: How Zarqawi's Death May Change the Game

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The news of the death of terrorist mastermind Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi today in Baquba, north of Baghdad, was greeted with cheers and applause by the Iraqi journalists who covered the announcement. But his killing is more important as a political victory than a military one.

On Wednesday night, working with intelligence from Iraqis and with the Jordanian spy service, American fighter-bombers leveled a house where Zarqawi and seven other leaders of his group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, were holed up. All were killed. U.S. Gen. George Casey, commander of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq, said Zarqawi's body was identified by facial features, known scars and fingerprints.

"Zarqawi was the godfather of sectarian killing in Iraq," said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, talking alongside Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. "He led a civil war within Islam and a global war of civilizations."

Zarqawi's killing is a major step forward in America's fight in Iraq, but it will not end the insurgency, which has numerous factions, not all of whom are loyal to Zarqawi — obviously, since someone tipped off the Americans. And it won't end the sectarian violence, because Shi'ite death squads are still operating out of the Interior ministry and other police forces and many Sunni insurgents are not foreign jihadis aligned with Zarqawi. These fighters have their own beef with Maliki's mainly Shi'ite government, which they see as a tool of Iran.

And while Zarqawi wasn't quite the all-powerful bogeyman the Americans made him out to be several times during the war, he brought in money and inspired recruits. Zarqawi was a tremendously charismatic leader of the foreign jihadis who, while small in number, had an outsize influence on the Iraqi insurgency, able to lure former Ba'athists and local Islamists into their camp. His death will certainly put a crimp in the jihad's money and manpower pipeline into Iraq.

More important, Zarqawi's death is a sign that the American plans to bring the Sunnis into the political process may have finally borne fruit, that the political deal in Baghdad between the Kurds, Shi'ites and Sunnis may yet hold — if the Shi'ites do their part.

The American gambled that by bringing in the Sunnis over the objections of their allies the Shi'ites and the Kurds, Sunni politicians like Adnan al-Dualaimi and Tariq al-Hashimi would be able to strengthen their influence over the Ba'athist and Islamic insurgents, and eventually turn the Iraqi elements of the insurgency against Zarqawi. That may be what happened. Baquba, where Zarqawi was killed, is a hotbed of Ba'athist groups, and there are early reports that local insurgents had given information on Zarqawi's whereabouts. Today, Sunni politicians said that now that Zarqawi had been eliminated, it was time to end the sectarian violence and bring the Shi'ite militias to heel. And that's the deal Iraq is looking at now.

Just minutes after Maliki's triumphant press conference, he presented names for the still-empty posts of Interior, Defense and National Security in the new government. It was a solid win for the Sunnis and seen as a reward for finally turning on Zarqawi. For Defense, they got Gen. Abdel Qader Jassim, a Sunni general, the current commander of the Iraqi Army and, famously, the general who advised Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait in 1991. For the post of Interior minister, Maliki named Shi'ite Jawad al-Bolani, a former colonel under Saddam and a close aide to Sheikh Karim Al-Mohammadawi, the "Prince of the Marshes," a local Shi'ite boss in the south opposed to Iran. Both men will be acceptable to the Sunnis, who loathed the former interior minister, Bayan Jabr, a religious Shi'ite tied to the Badr Organization, a Shi'ite militia still believed closely connected with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Bolani's anti-Iran credentials are solid. In January 2005, while standing for election for the transitional Iraqi parliament, al-Bolani told TIME: "The Iranian system will never happen in Iraq, and most Islamic movements agree wth me on that."

So it appears that the Sunnis delivered on Zarqawi, and got candidates to their liking. Now the question turns to what happens next. In all likelihood, there will be an immediate upsurge in violence as insurgents allied to Zarqawi attempt to show that their leader's death will be avenged and to demonstrate their ability still to carry out operations. But if Zarqawi's killing is evidence that the Sunnis were ready to abandon him and buy into the political process, this violence should begin to ebb in a matter of weeks as more Sunni militants are brought to heel.

"Zarqawi's death will not end the violence in Iraq," Khalilzad said. "But it is an important step in the right direction." He's right. The Shi'ites will now have to complete their end of the bargain. The next step will be for Maliki and his new security team to rein in the Shi'ite militias that have been the source of so much Sunni anger toward the government in Baghdad. If they don't — or can't — and the sectarian killings continue, the Sunnis will be tempted to unleash their fighters again. And if that happens, there won't be any new deals to be made.