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Saturday, June 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:56 AM

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Al-Zarqawi served role in U.S. strategy in Iraq

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — From the moment President Bush introduced him to the American people in October 2002, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi served a crucial purpose for the administration, providing a tangible focus for its insistence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

After the invasion that toppled Saddam, and the rise of the insurgency against occupying U.S. forces, al-Zarqawi's presence in Iraq was cited as proof that the uprising was fomented by al-Qaida-backed foreign fighters.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described al-Zarqawi as "the leading terrorist in Iraq and one of three senior al-Qaida leaders worldwide."

In addition to his prominent role in the Iraqi insurgency, al-Zarqawi was always a useful source of propaganda for the administration. Magnification of his role and of the threat he posed grew to the point that some senior intelligence officers believed it was counterproductive.

But the administration also found it useful to play down al-Zarqawi's importance and influence. In early 2004, the then-governing Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad triumphantly displayed an intercepted letter from al-Zarqawi to the al-Qaida leadership that it said illustrated the terrorist's despair in the face of an increasingly competent U.S.-trained Iraqi security force.

"The exact quote he uses is, and I quote Mr. Zarqawi, 'With the spread of the army and police, our future is becoming frightening,' " coalition spokesman Dan Senor told a Baghdad news conference.

Similar publicity was given to a letter intercepted last year in which al-Qaida's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, humbled al-Zarqawi with criticism of his public beheading of hostages and attacks on fellow Muslims.

At times, the conflicting messages seemed to overlap. In April, a top U.S. military official cited al-Zarqawi's failure to disrupt elections for a new Iraqi government as "a tactical admission" of defeat. Al-Zarqawi and al-Qaida, said 18th Airborne Corps commander Lt. Gen. John Vines, "no longer view Iraq as fertile ground to establish a caliphate and as a place to conduct international terrorism."

That same month, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told a Baghdad news briefing that more than 90 percent of the suicide attacks in Iraq were carried out by terrorist forces recruited and trained by al-Zarqawi.

Trading insults

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Even as they were locked in genuine confrontation on the battlefield, al-Zarqawi and the United States engaged in public, tit-for-tat insults.

On April 25, al-Zarqawi brazenly showed his face for the first time in a video posted on the Internet. In a lengthy diatribe, he accused Bush of lying to Americans about U.S. military victories in Iraq. U.S. forces, he predicted, "will go out of Iraq humiliated, defeated." The video showed al-Zarqawi strutting across a desert landscape, wielding an automatic weapon.

Ten days later, the United States counterattacked. In Baghdad, Lynch displayed what he said were outtakes from the al-Zarqawi video, captured during a raid on an al-Qaida safe house in the city.

"Here's Zarqawi, the ultimate warrior," he said, "trying to shoot his machine gun." The gun apparently jammed, and al-Zarqawi was seen motioning to a masked compatriot to help him. The great "warrior leader," Lynch mocked, "doesn't understand how to operate his weapon system."

But the U.S. psychological operation appeared to backfire, according to one military study of how it played in the Arab and U.S. media. While some media outlets found al-Zarqawi ludicrous, most wondered why he was so hard to capture or kill if he was so incompetent.

The Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi is described in most biographies as a minor thug until he traveled to Afghanistan in the early 1980s to take part, along with Osama bin Laden, in the struggle against Soviet occupation. When he returned to Jordan in 1992, he turned his anger against Jordan's monarchy and was arrested and imprisoned for seven years after being accused of plotting against the government. He left the country after his release.

Terrorist cell

In Germany, U.S. and European intelligence officials have said, al-Zarqawi formed his own terrorist cell with Jordanian and Syrian exiles.

In early 2001, Jordanian authorities convicted al-Zarqawi in absentia for conspiracy to blow up tourist sites frequented by Israelis and Americans. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he was said to be in Iran.

After the U.S.-led multinational attack that overthrew the Taliban government in Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi appeared on a U.S. list of most-wanted al-Qaida terrorists. Intelligence officials said that at some time during the summer of that year, al-Zarqawi spent two months in Baghdad, where he received medical treatment for an undisclosed problem with his leg.

By then, administration attention was locked on Iraq. In a speech in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, Bush outlined the "grave threat" Saddam posed to the United States. Citing "high-level contacts" between Iraq and al-Qaida "that go back a decade," he said that "some al-Qaida leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior al-Qaida leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks."

Bush never mentioned al-Zarqawi's name, but Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a speech to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, described him as the head of a "deadly terrorist network" tied to al-Qaida and harbored by Saddam.

The United States placed a $25 million bounty on his head, promised to whomever could provide intelligence leading to his capture or death. In recent weeks, a proposal surfaced within the U.S. military to decrease the reward. An announcement that he had been downgraded in importance, proponents suggested, might draw an insulted al-Zarqawi out into the open.

The State Department disagreed, and members of Congress suggested that the reward be doubled.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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