AFTER months of bleak and depressing news from Iraq, there's something at last to cheer: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, is dead in an American pinpoint bombing raid.
While decent impulses may caution some Americans against finding joy even in the death of an enemy, al-Zarqawi's departure from this world is unequivocally good and just. Even by the vicious standards of terrorists, he was in a diabolical league of his own.
Al-Zarqawi's humanity could hardly be seen for the blood of his many victims, including American hostages beheaded by his hand. He was that most obscene sort of murderer - one who brought death in the name of the creator God. In truth, the 500-pound bombs that proved his safe house unsafe were instruments of simple justice.
But to acknowledge the obvious evil of al-Zarqawi and his followers is not to justify the Bush Administration's choice of Iraq as the main battlefield in fighting the war on terror, as some will certainly argue.
Although al-Zarqawi was named in then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech at the United Nations in February, 2003, to justify the imminent U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the al-Qaeda link with Saddam Hussein subsequently proved flimsy.
Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, came to Iraq after the 9/11 terror attacks; he came via Iran, having been forced out by U.S. action in Afghanistan. As with so many other jihadists, al-Zarqawi found Iraq the most convenient place to fight "the crusaders."
Now the situation is what it is, a road to hell paved with American good intentions. The United States is fighting on soil more advantageous to the terrorists than American and coalition forces, who don't speak the language or share much cultural affinity with the people.
In this context, U.S. forces are more plausibly seen as invaders. With the chaos of the growing insurgency, and with sectarian violence rife, Iraq has become an incubator of terrorism. Every day seems to bring a new horror.
The fact that one leading terrorist in this maelstrom has been killed hardly changes the basic equation. It would be wonderful to suppose that the head has been cut from this snake, but al-Qaeda would turn out to be an unusual terror organization for that to happen.
As Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday with uncommon candor: "Given the nature of the terrorist networks, really a network of networks, the death of Zarqawi, while enormously important, will not mean the end of all violence in that country."
Still, it is a rare victory and should be celebrated as such. It is especially encouraging that the intelligence for this successful attack is said to have come from within the insurgency itself.
Taken together with a second note of encouragement - Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's filling of key posts in his Cabinet - it raises the possibility that somehow the new Iraqi government might yet muddle through, despite the false assumptions and incompetence that mark the Bush Administration's record in nation-building.
A happy outcome is probably wishful thinking. But in this time of rare good news, a little wishful thinking is a luxury to be indulged.