Death of Zarqawi is a mere sideshow

THERE are many reasons to celebrate the death, or as George W Bush put it the "delivery of justice" to, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. His atrocities stretch from the 1995 Amman hotel bomb through to the wave of killings in Iraq in the last year. Assassin, murderer, terrorist, warmonger - he was all of those things. But he was neither the face of, nor the force behind, the insurgency in Iraq.

It is understandable for Tony Blair to suggest otherwise. There has been such little good news from Iraq that the Prime Minister would want us to believe that Zarqawi was a major figure in the problems the country faces - or, as he put it last week, the "most vicious persecutor" of the insurgency. "Defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq and we will defeat them everywhere," he said.

He speaks as if al-Qaeda is the primary enemy in Iraq, and that it is a battle ordinary Iraqis can win. This is utterly misleading.

To escape Iraq at the first decent opportunity, both Blair and Bush must set up a false narrative. They concentrate on the Iraq government and the number of police, and talk about giving power to "Iraqis" and about the task being to transfer power from allied troops to the native military.

The insurgents are portrayed as either diehard Saddam supporters or foreign al-Qaeda impostors. In reality, the "insurgency" is a low-level civil war. A good indicator of Iraq's problems was given last week when Baghdad's morgue released its figures: 1,398 corpses for the month of May alone.

This excludes any victims of explosions, police or gunmen: these are victims of the civil war that Blair will not admit exists. The head of a prominent Sunni cleric was found last weekend, literally gift wrapped above seven other severed heads with a note claiming he had killed four Shi'ites. The next day 19 Shi'ite students were dragged out of a bus by gunmen and executed - four Sunnis on board were spared.

To this ethnic violence, we can also add religious intolerance. The viciousness of the Taleban has been introduced to the previously secular Iraq. Female students who could walk on university campus freely under Saddam Hussein are told to veil up, and alcohol shops have been closed after drinkers were assassinated by gunmen.

Two tennis players and their coach were attacked last week for wearing shorts - bringing to 70 the number of sportsmen killed in the violence. In January, Samira Kubaissym, a basketball player, was murdered for indulging in what her assassins called "un-Islamic behaviour".

This is not an al-Qaeda problem but simple ethnic warfare between Sunnis, who held power under Saddam and the Shi'ites, who are riding to ascendancy in the new political regime. It is a hideous mix of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and Northern Ireland in the late 1960s - the evils of sectarianism are taking firm root and the problem is getting steadily worse. Sunnis regard the Iraqi police as Shi'ites, just as republicans regarded the old Royal Ulster Constabulary as unionists.

Al-Qaeda fanatics were latecomers to the scene. Initially they fought with Sunni insurgents, but fell out last December when Sunni leaders told their communities to vote in the elections lest the Shi'ites seized all the power. Zarqawi denounced this as collaboration - and it was perhaps then that his death warrant was signed. Six Sunni groups declared in an Arab newspaper they had united against al-Qaeda.

For the past four months, Zarqawi had become an enemy of the Iraqi insurgency. There is every possibility that an insurgent's tip-off led to Zarqawi - which would mean that his death is a sign of the insurgents' sophistication, not their weakness.

Of the 20,000 estimated insurgents at work in Iraq, only 1,000 are judged by the US State Department to be al-Qaeda. Should Blair and Bush wipe out al-Qaeda in Iraq it will reduce by a pathetic 5% the insurgency which troops, police and civilians are facing on a daily basis. So far this month, insurgency incidents average at 90 a day - one of the highest on record. Violence is bad, and is getting worse.

If Blair and Bush are fully appraised of this, they make no mention. The president says that "civil war" is a term used by terrorists, and so he refuses to acknowledge it.

The Prime Minister claims that the presence of Sunni and Shi'ite politicians in the new Iraqi government prove that there is no ethnic strife - presumably on the same logic that the new Northern Ireland executive proves there is no sectarianism in Ulster.

But if they formally recognised the extent of the sectarian killings, they would be obliged to stay in Iraq until the country is pacified - a problem made even harder by the fact that just 1% of Iraqis say they trust international troops to protect them.

The route to exiting Iraq means turning a blind eye to sectarian violence and the descent of Basra into a repressive Shi'ite mini-theocracy.

If Blair wants to start withdrawing British troops by the end of this decade, he has to pretend that all this is not happening. He must focus instead on fake enemies such as al-Qaeda.

The infuriating aspect of the war on terror is the absence of a definable enemy. This is why figures like Zarqawi are so useful to politicians - and to the media, which finds it far easier to describe battles when they are personalised.

The arrest of Saddam and the killing of his two sons did nothing to slow the eruption of violence. The Iraqi morgue says last month was the bloodiest on record. The new Iraqi interior minister said Zarqawi's death meant a "new beginning". He would have known otherwise.

Al-Qaeda is a sideshow in this cycle of murder into which Iraq has descended. A glance at the country's headlines at noon yesterday showed how little has changed: a roadside bomb killed three in a Baghdad vegetable market and another two severed heads were found north of the city, which police believe to be some of the 30 people kidnapped each day.

The death of Zarqawi has given Western politicians and media a rare good news story from Iraq. But in the country itself, it will not make one iota of difference.

Fraser Nelson is political editor of The Spectator

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