Reason to celebrate

It is unseemly to welcome the death of any individual but an exception can be made for the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

In as much as terrorism in Iraq is centrally directed, the death of al-Zarqawi, in a pinpoint bombing by U.S. F-16s, along with his top adviser, Sheik Abdul Rahman, decapitates the network.

His followers are portraying al-Zarqawi as a religious martyr, but if this was jihad — religious struggle — it was of a peculiar sort because most of his victims were his fellow Muslims. An al Qaeda in Iraq Web site spoke of the “joyous news” of their leader’s martyrdom, an observation with an unintentional double meaning. Published accounts say “senior militants” in his network tipped off the coalition to his whereabouts.

Even among hardened radicals, there seemed to be a growing sense that al-Zarqawi’s stunningly vicious tactics _ indiscriminate bombings, beheadings, the slaughter of innocents _ were becoming a liability, and he had received a rare public rebuke from Osama bin Laden’s camp about his predilection for beheadings. The warning didn’t take. He left behind boxes containing 17 severed heads at his last hiding place.

For the Bush administration, finishing off al-Zarqawi coming simultaneously with the final completion of a permanent Iraq government came as a welcome break in a run of bad news, and the president took to the Rose Garden to proclaim the occasion as an opportunity “to turn the tide of this struggle.”

A turning point maybe, but the preoccupying concern now is: What happens next?

The consensus seems to be that there will be a spasm of terrorist attacks intended to demonstrate that the insurgency has not been crippled and that the system of decentralized terrorist cells will continue to function. Indeed, a U.S. military spokesman said an Egyptian-born individual named Abu al-Masri is poised to take al-Zaqawi’s place. But surely there are few who share their dead leader’s single-minded determination to inflict so much mayhem on innocent people.

The critical question in what happens next is how the Iraqi people respond. It was a positive sign that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s announcement that al-Zarqawi had been “eliminated” was met with sustained applause.

The death should serve to convince the Iraqi people that there really is evil in their midst and that eliminating it is the essential first step to a stable and secure Iraq that will allow prosperity to follow.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)