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Last updated: June 8, 2006 9:34 am

Profile: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

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The death of the leader of one of Iraq’s most notorious insurgent groups came just over a month after the Jordanian terrorist emerged from the shadows for the first time, in a video internet appearance.

The film, on an Islamist website, showed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi addressing the camera directly, vowing to inflict a heavy defeat on the Americans in Iraq and on the new government, which he described as “an agent of the Crusaders”.

But the appearance also coincided with political shifts within Iraq that looked set to weaken support for Zarqawi’s group and further reduce his importance as a propaganda tool.

Sporting a black beard and clothing, and accompanied by a machine gun, the “emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq” appeared on a video representing an organisation called the “Council of the Mujahideen in Iraq”. In the video, Zarqawi said he was a member of the council, rather than its leader, and reiterated his pledge of allegiance to Osama bin Laden.

He was seen in a number of clips, variously greeting supporters, supervising the training of insurgents and inspecting new weapons, including an “al-Qaeda” missile, with a 40km range, and an “a?l-Quds” anti-tank missile.

Mustafa Alani, a strategic analyst at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, said he saw the video as a sign that Zarqawi was “deeply worried” by recent events in Iraq. After a “brief honeymoon” in his relationship with the home-grown Iraqi insurgents, he was sensing a political change that could spell the end of his alliance with the Sunni resistance.

After months of negotiations, a new government has emerged in which Iraq’s Sunni community is set to play a greater role. Whereas in the past, Zarqawi’s group won a measure of local support for its success in targetting US troops, its focus on attacking Iraqi police and army recruits and on promoting sectarian divisions is likely to become increasingly incompatible with the aims of the Sunni resistance as they seek to integrate into the political system, believes Mr Alani.

Although the Jordanian has been portrayed in the media as an international terrorist mastermind, second only to Osama bin Laden, it is in Iraq that he achieved his greatest notoriety.

Most westerners first heard of Zarqawi in the run up to the US invasion of Iraq, when his alleged presence in Baghdad for medical treatment was used by President George W Bush to forge a link in the American public’s mind between al-Qaeda and the regime of Saddam Hussein.

President Bush and Colin Powell, US secretary of state, accused Iraq of harbouring “a very senior al-Qaeda leader” - meaning Zarqawi - when the Jordanian spent time in Baghdad recovering from injuries sustained in Afghanistan.

Zarqawi rose to greater international prominence after the US invasion of Iraq, when a group said to be led by him called Tawhid wal Jihad [Unity and Holy War] claimed responsibility for some of the worst terrorist outrages, notably the brutal beheading of the British hostage Ken Bigley, and of the US hostages Nic Berg, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley.

His name was mentioned in connection with a string of terrorist atrocities, including the murder of Mr Berg, shown in a horrific video, parts of which were transmitted on Arabic satellite television. This “restored the link in the public mind between al-Qaeda and Iraq that was part of the justification for the war in the first place”, according to one US commentator.

President George W. Bush underlined the point a year after the invasion, when he described Zarqawi as “the best evidence of a connection to al-Qaeda affiliates and al-Qaeda” in Iraq.

But doubts remained about the link between al-Qaeda and Zarqawi. None of the statements or videos issued by Tawhid wal Jihad mentioned his name.

Furthermore, Islamists in London, while they were familiar with other al-Qaeda figures who spent time in Afghanistan, professed to know little about Zarqawi and initially regarded his growing notoriety as “an American story”. They suggested that he might in fact be a relatively minor figure whose importance was being exaggerated by western intelligence agencies.

Nevertheless, the US authorities made clear that they viewed him as the most dangerous terrorist since Bin Laden, and increased their reward for his capture to $25m.

Dr Alani says many of the media reports about Zarqawi were based on assumptions, rather than hard evidence. Given the number of bombings he was said to have masterminded, he was either a myth or a superman. The reason for US officials’ focus on Zarqawi was the need to personalise what was happening in Iraq for the American public to make it easier for people to understand, Dr Alani suggested.

Whereas Bin Laden’s path to notoriety was well documented, his voice and appearance well known and therefore his statements reasonably easy to verify, Zarqawi long remained a shadowy figure about whom very little was known.

The known facts about Zarqawi’s life are few. He was born Ahmed Fadhil al-Khalayleh in 1966 in Zarqa in Jordan, where he became a minor civil servant. He is a member of the Bani Hassan tribe, many of whom work in security services in Jordan, and whose territory extends into Iraq.

He came into conflict with the authorities in Jordan as founder of a movement aiming to replace the monarchy with an Islamic state - known as al-Muwahhidun [sometimes called Tawhid] - for which he was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1996.

During his years in prison, he became a spokesman for prisoners’ rights - particularly the right to pray - and had some success in securing an improvement in conditions, says Dr Alani. After his release under a general amnesty in 1999, he left Jordan and from then on all hard evidence of his activities ran out.

He was said to have gone to Afghanistan, where he was reported to have run a training camp for Jordanian fighters and to have developed a special expertise in poisons. He was also said to have spent time in Pakistan and Iran, where he raised money for and planned a series of terrorist attacks against Jordanian and western targets.

During the interim government of Iyad Allawi, the focus on Zarqawi as a leader of Iraqi insurgency grew. The US military in Iraq repeatedly said they believed he was operating from a base in or near the rebel-held town of Falluja.

Then, in the run up to the US-led assault on Falluja in October 2004, shortly before the US presidential elections, a statement published on an Islamist web site claimed that Tawhid and Jihad had formed an alliance with al-Qaeda.

?What they want to tell the American people is that Bush has turned Iraq into a battleground for al-Qaeda,? commented one leading Islamist who followed the Iraqi groups closely.

Mr Alani suggested the statement showed there was an ideological, if not operational link between the jihadists in Iraq and al-Qaeda, but he added: “There is no group in Iraq that is receiving orders from al-Qaeda.”

In confirmation of this view, in late December 2004, a month before the first post-war elections in Iraq, a recording said to be by Osama bin Laden said that the Saudi terrorist had accepted the credentials of Zarqawi as “the emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq” and appealed to supporters in Iraq to listen to the Jordanian and to boycott the Iraqi elections.

After his apparent adoption by al-Qaeda, Zarqawi’s capture was seen as a greater propaganda coup for the US-led coalition forces than ever. But if those who doubt his importance are correct, there is no more reason to believe this would bring about an end to the insurgency than did the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Most experts are agreed that the greatest source of instability in Iraq is the sectarian resentments that have resulted from the rise to power of the country’s Shia majority and the displacement of the Sunni minority that dominated the previous regime.

Zarqawi?s group has been accused of helping to inflame these divisions, but the insurgency is mostly waged by a collection of Iraqi groups, including former Ba?athists and Iraqi Islamists.

If they can be successfully brought into the political process, then the future for Iraq would look considerably brighter - and the outlook for groups like Zarqawi’s would look increasingly precarious.

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