Tomgram: Dahr Jamail on the Zarqawi Phenomenon

Just in the last few days, according to USA Today, a “propaganda video purportedly made by al-Qaeda-linked terror suspect Abu Musab al-Zarqawi” has been released showing suicide attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq supposedly inspired by or ordered by him. Since George Bush first mentioned him in October 2002 in a speech in Cincinnati as proof of an al-Qaeda presence in Iraq, and so of Saddam Hussein’s essential al-Qaeda-ness, Zarqawi has moved ever more front and center as Iraq’s main terrorist threat. He now has an enormous bounty on his head and is cited regularly by the President as well as other administration officials as our enemy of enemies in that land, proof positive that Iraq is “the central theater in the war on terror.” In the U.S., he has come to personify the war in Iraq, his presence both a kind of instant why-we-fight explanation for our being there and a living justification for everything we are doing there.

Zarqawi has indeed been a strange phenomenon of the ongoing war. Sometimes he seems to be everywhere at once in that country, blamed for (or, through jihadist websites, taking credit for) everything from the latest IED attacks on U.S. troops to mortar barrages against U.S. bases, suicide car-bomb assaults on Shiite civilian targets, kidnappings, beheadings, even a string of bombings stretching from Morocco to Turkey in 2003, not to speak of the resistance of whole Iraqi cities to the American occupation, If it happens and it’s horrific, he seems to be the one responsible. His name has more or less replaced Saddam’s and Osama Bin Laden’s as the enemy of choice for the United States. He is a literal whirling dervish of an enemy. His lieutenants or aides fall constantly into American hands; he is reportedly at every hotspot all over Iraq — or not in Iraq at all. His organization seems to take credit for just about every attack, every suicide bomb, every explosion in the country. The search for Zarqawi has become an –- if not the -– organizing theme of the American war in Iraq. At one point recently, the blogger Billmon posted the following set of typical Zarqawi headlines:

June 16, 2005: U.S. Says It Has Captured Al Qaeda Leader for Mosul Area

June 5, 2005: Militant linked to Zarqawi arrested

May 25, 2005: Top aide to al-Zarqawi arrested north of Baghdad

May 25, 2005: US: al-Zarqawi aides arrested

May 9, 2005: Gains seen after new arrest of al-Zarqawi aide

April 19, 2005: Iraqi Security Forces Capture Two Zarqawi Associates

March 9, 2005: A Zarqawi cell “prince”, six others captured in Baquba

And he suggested the following template for the basic we-almost-got-Zarqawi story in our press, a kind of Iraqi variant on America’s Most Wanted:

[Iraqi/US/US and Iraqi] forces have [nabbed/captured/ arrested] [a/one/two] [senior/middle/] [figure(s)/operations chief(s)/terrorist operative(s)] of [Jordanian/al-Qaeda-linked/Iraq’s most wanted] terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi.

And yet, as far as anyone can tell, Zarqawi’s actual organization or network is, at best, modest in nature and no one writing about it or him even really knows whether the man is alive or dead, in or out of Iraq. A look at basic press accounts of Zarqawi finds them filled to the brim with words like “purportedly,” “allegedly,” “claims,” and “the CIA believes with a high degree of confidence.” And the unnamed sources who tell us what is supposedly known about Zarqawi are invariably anonymous “American officials” or “intelligence officials,” the same people who once assured us that he had a leg amputated in one of Saddam’s Baghdad hospitals. (He is now believed to be two-legged.)

How to put together this conveniently satanic figure — capable of personalizing all the horrors of Iraq in a single monstrous body and bringing them home to the American public in a way that the Bush administration has found convenient — with what little is known about a possibly not-too-bright small-town thug is a curious challenge. Independent journalist Dahr Jamail, who wrote for Tomdispatch (among other places) from Baghdad and then came home for a break, is now back in the Middle East and, from Amman, Jordan, he went on his own search for the truth behind the Zarqawi phenomenon. Tom

The Zarqawi Phenomenon
By Dahr Jamail

A remarkable proportion of the violence taking place in Iraq is regularly credited to the Jordanian Ahmad al-Khalayleh, better known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and his organization Al Qaeda in Iraq. Sometimes it seems no car bomb goes off, no ambush occurs that isn’t claimed in his name or attributed to him by the Bush administration. Bush and his top officials have, in fact, made good use of him, lifting his reputed feats of terrorism to epic, even mythic, proportions (much aided by various mainstream media outlets). Given that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has now been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be based upon administration lies and manipulations, I had begun to wonder if the vaunted Zarqawi even existed.

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