Mon, May 30, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Al-Zarqawi eclipsing bin Laden as militant icon

MENACING IRAQ A veil of secrecy surrounds the Jordanian-born terrorist, who some say may have been injured or killed in a gun-battle with US and Iraqi forces


He is an American nightmare, an Islamic mass killer who haunts the national psyche. He has masterminded a bombing campaign in Iraq that has cost hundreds of innocent lives. He has a US$25 million bounty on his head and is blamed for terrorist atrocities that span the globe.

He is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

No single name emerging from the "war on terror," perhaps not even Osama bin Laden himself, now dominates the headlines as much as Zarqawi. Certainly not in the past week. Accounts are confused, but it seems Zarqawi has been injured in Iraq. Perhaps he is even dead.

Rumors have been flying across the Internet and front pages. There have been hospital sightings, stories of a dying leader being smuggled across the border and the beginnings of a fight for a successor. No one knows what is true. Zarqawi has been pronounced dead before and always come back to the fight. Perhaps this time it will be different. Perhaps not (the latest rumors have him alive and back in control).

Only two things are certain. First, the one-time street thug from a Jordanian slum town is now the US' number-one target. Second, if he dies, the Iraqi insurgency will carry on without him. For Zarqawi did not create the war in Iraq. Rather, Iraq's war gave him his chance. Zarqawi's story is of a man who seized an opportunity to practice mayhem, honing his dreadful talent on the killing fields of the Sunni Triangle.

Zarqawi was put up by the US as a terrorist bogeyman long before he had the profile to justify it. Much of the world first heard his name in a speech by then-US secretary of state Colin Powell to the UN when he was used to link al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein. Zarqawi was held up as key to making the case for the US invasion of Iraq. Ever since, in his own blood-stained way, he has been making the case against.

Yet Zarqawi remains a shadowy figure. Even his name is not real. His nom de guerre is simply a homage to his home town of Zarqa, a poor town about half-an-hour's drive from Amman. His real name is the more wordy Ahmad Fadeel Nazal al Khalayleh. He was born in 1966, possibly on Oct. 20, to a father who was a retired Jordanian army officer. Their house was a two-storey concrete construction overlooking the chimneys of a city dubbed Jordan's Detroit for its car industry (and its crime). Like so much of Zarqawi's life, a close examination sees certainty evaporate. No wonder US Marines scouring Fallujah or Ramadi cannot find him. Many of his fellow Islamists see him as a ghost-like figure, always eluding the net. In trying to piece together his life, they sometimes seem to have a point.

When Powell first described Zarqawi, he said he was of Palestinian origin. It is a mistake often repeated. But those trying to explain Zarqawi's blood lust by using the Palestinian tragedy are scouring the wrong ground. In fact his family belong to the Beni Hassan tribe of Bedouin, a long-established Jordanian group that is usually loyal to Jordan's ruling monarch.

Nothing in his childhood hinted at what he was going to become. His father died in 1984, leaving the large family to struggle on a meagre army pension. Zarqawi quickly became a tearaway. He spent his time scrapping and playing football in Zarqa's dusty streets and surprised no one by dropping out of school aged 17.

He drifted into casual crime as an enforcer and general-purpose thug. At some time, he was imprisoned for sexual assault. On the streets, he learned the art of violence. It was a lesson he used to dramatic effect when he hacked off the head of American engineer Nick Berg in the first "snuff video" to emerge from Iraq.

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