Bad news for al-Qaeda


AT 6:15 p.m. local time on Wednesday, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda chieftain in Iraq, was meeting in a nondescript house in Hibhib, a hamlet about five miles northeast of Baquba, with eight of his top aides.

The meeting ended early. Two 500-pound bombs dropped by U.S. Air Force F-16s obliterated the house and killed all inside.

The fighter-bombers were guided there by members of Task Force 145, a team of special operators assembled for the explicit purpose of hunting down the al-Qaeda leadership in Iraq.

TF 145 had been directed to the farmhouse by tips from Iraqi civilians, and by information from interrogations of two al-Qaeda leaders captured in raids in May.

From a purely military standpoint, the loss of his lieutenants probably was a greater blow to al-Qaeda than was the loss of al-Zarqawi himself.

Al-Zarqawi had been targeting Shiite civilians in an effort to provoke a civil war. This was causing dissension with other insurgent groups, and within al-Qaeda itself.

Al-Zarqawi also was straining the alliance of convenience between al-Qaeda and the mullahs in Tehran, who have been supplying insurgents with sophisticated roadside bombs. Sunni extremists and Shiite extremists don't normally get along, but their shared enmity with the United States had caused them to work together.

Al-Zarqawi was jeopardizing this cooperation. Earlier this month he described Hezbollah, the leading Iranian-backed terror group, as a "cover for Israel."

Web logger Michael Totten asked Mohammed Afif, a Hezbollah leader in Lebanon, what he thought of al-Zarqawi's group. "We hate them," Mr. Afif responded. "They call us cockroaches and murder our people."

"Given that Zarqawi has become a loose cannon and his actions are handicapping al-Qaeda's efforts, it seems reasonable to expect that an accident will befall him at some point in the near future," said StrategyPage's Jim Dunnigan in a prescient post on the very day Zarqawi was killed.

But if the loss of al-Zarqawi the man won't hurt al-Qaeda all that much, the loss of al-Zarqawi the legend is devastating. "As he committed atrocity after atrocity, seemingly with impunity, Zarqawi became a mythic figure in part of the world where mythology has vastly more cachet than reality," said former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy.

Al-Zarqawi's death is a huge psychological and political boost to the fledgling Iraqi government. Iraqis danced in the streets. His legendary brutality had made many Iraqis fearful of cooperating with their government. Now that he is dead, what has been a stream of tips could become a river.

Al-Zarqawi's death also sends a message to fence-sitters among Iraq's Sunnis. For those who wish to be on the winning side, it is more clear which side that is.

Though the political benefits are primary, let's not give short shrift to the military benefits. No fighting organization can lose so much of its senior leadership without serious degradation of its performance and morale. The terrorists killed Wednesday can be replaced, but neither quickly nor easily, and the replacements will lack the skill and experience of the deceased.

And things will get worse for al-Qaeda. Thanks to leads from "a treasure trove " of documents recovered from the rubble, Coalition forces launched 17 raids in greater Baghdad Thursday.

News of the demise of the murderous thug was greeted sourly on the left-liberal blogs Democratic Underground and Daily Kos, where posters feared al-Zarqawi's death would boost support for President Bush and the Iraq war.

Much of the news media also viewed al-Zarqawi's death chiefly through the prism of domestic politics. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow clearly was irritated when a reporter asked him Thursday: "Will the Zarqawi success help the President on immigration?"

The capture of Saddam Hussein didn't end the insurgency in Iraq. Killing al-Zarqawi won't either. But it should reduce significantly the bombings and beheadings of civilians. To those of us who think winning the war on terror is more important than embarrassing the President, that's a positive step.