Mon, Jun 28, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Washington has a new public enemy number one

DEAD OR ALIVE The US believes Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is behind much of the violence in Iraq. Kill or capture him, the logic goes, and the insurgency is over


Dominating one wall of the huge room, faced by ranks of soldiers with telephones and monitors, is a screen showing a large map of a substantial chunk of Iraq, direct feeds from predator pilotless surveillance drones, live TV pictures and three slogans: "What has happened? What is happening? What is to be done?"

The screen covers a portion of Iraq populated by nearly four million people. One man is at the top of the "What is to be done?" list.

Fadel al-Khalailah, better known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is Washington's public enemy number one, almost supplanting Osama bin Laden as the main focus of the global counter-terrorist hunt. The US believes that the 38-year-old Jordanian is the mastermind behind much of the recent violence in Iraq. Kill or capture him, the logic goes, and the insurgency falls apart. The reward for his capture is now US$10 million.

Unlike many senior militants, al-Zarqawi is from a poor background. Of Bedouin stock, he once ran a video shop and his family still live in a rundown house not far from Amman, the Jordanian capital. In the late 1980s, he joined the thousands of young Arabs helping the Afghans to fight the Soviet forces, then returned home determined to continue the battle "against unbelief" there.

On his release in 1999, al-Zarqawi went to Europe, where he organized a fundraising and terror network stretching from Germany to the UK, then moved on to the one place where militants could plot in relative security -- Taliban-run Afghanistan. Inevitably he came into contact with bin Laden. Washington has consistently claimed that he is "linked" to the al-Qaeda chief, but the relationship is more complex.

German police intelligence reports say that al-Zarqawi's al-Tauhid group was set up, not as a branch of al-Qaeda, but in competition. In fact, al-Zarqawi tried to get help from bin Laden to enhance his own career. He received logistical support from the Saudi-born militant leader, but never swore loyalty to him.

His chance came in the autumn of 2001. al-Zarqawi fought the Americans, then escaped through Iran. He seems to have arrived in northern Iraq -- outside the control of Saddam Hussein -- in late 2002.

"He has become Iraq's bin Laden," said Charles Pena of Washington's Cao Institute. "His role is more inspirational than operational. Killing him won't end radical violence in Iraq any more than killing bin Laden will end it globally."

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