Reactions Thursday to Abu Musab Zarqawi’s death reflected the contradictions and conspiracy theories that surrounded the elusive figure in life.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called the militant the “godfather of sectarian violence in Iraq” during a speech Thursday morning in Baghdad, shortly after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s televised announcement of Zarqawi’s killing.
But in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, where the insurgency is strongest, and the Palestinian territories, Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, was mourned as a martyr whose cause would continue long after his death Wednesday in a U.S. bomb attack.
“He died but thousands of Zarqawis will follow,” said Hussein Hashim Fallouji, 54, a Sunni Arab merchant in the city of Fallouja in Al Anbar.
News of Zarqawi’s death spread rapidly across the bloodied nation Thursday as people ran to tell their neighbors or sent cellphone text messages to friends farther afield.
Haider Abbas, 24, a Shiite living in Basra, joined other students in a street party and a bout of celebratory gunfire.
“This is the second time in my life I shoot to express my happiness,” he said. “The first was when Saddam was captured.”
In parts of that southern city, women danced in the streets and revelers handed out sweets.
But as some Iraqis celebrated, others questioned the magnitude of Zarqawi’s role in their country’s troubles.
Hilal Ibrahim, a 28-year-old Kurdish journalist from the northern city of Sulaymaniya, said U.S. officials had exaggerated Zarqawi’s significance. It was “an excuse to legitimatize their military actions in Iraq,” he said. “Zarqawi is just one of many who have waged a war against the U.S. in Iraq, so the end of Zarqawi is not the end of violence.”
Haider Mohammed, a Sunni in Baghdad, said Zarqawi was “only a small part of the problem.”
“I will be much happier when we get rid of the militias,” the 38-year-old surgeon said.
“I don’t care about the death of Zarqawi because his death or life has nothing to do with my life,” said Saman Mohammed Saeed, a 28-year-old Kurdish tea vendor in Sulaymaniya. “The whole Zarqawi story ... has always been an American game, and this news of his death is another lie. As for the situation in Iraq, his death will change nothing, because he is not the one carrying out all of the crimes.”
Even Iraqis celebrating Zarqawi’s death were skeptical that it would halt the violence.
“Didn’t they claim that if Saddam were to be captured, the situation would stabilize?” said Ali Hatam, a Sunni sheik whose tribe has fought Zarqawi’s followers in Al Anbar.
Elsewhere in the region, Zarqawi’s symbolic importance was highlighted in an angry exchange between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which praised him as a fallen hero.
“We commend the martyr Zarqawi for his role in facing the U.S. occupation,” said Sami abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman.
But Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said, “Those who praise Zarqawi expose themselves before the world for what they truly are.” And former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israel Radio, “Among the ranks of terror, they need to know that if they want to be martyrs, this can be arranged.”
In Iraq, some described the announcement of Zarqawi’s death as theatrics intended to bolster the new Iraqi government and boost waning domestic support for President Bush. In a televised speech Thursday, Bush described the killing as “a victory in the global war on terror” and called it “an opportunity for Iraq’s new government to turn the tide of this struggle.”
In Brussels, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Zarqawi “personified the dark, sadistic and evil vision of the future, of beheadings, suicide bombings and indiscriminate killings.” But he cautioned that it would “not mean the end of violence” in Iraq.
Prime Minister Tony Blair described Zarqawi’s death as “very good news,” telling reporters in London, “His death is a strike against Al Qaeda in Iraq and therefore a strike against Al Qaeda everywhere. Our determination to defeat them is total.”
The family of Kenneth Bigley, a British engineer taken hostage and beheaded in Iraq in 2004, spoke of their relief at Zarqawi’s death. The leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq is suspected of being involved in the slaying of the 62-year-old engineer from Liverpool, whose execution was released on videotape.
Bigley’s brother, Stan, called Zarqawi a “monster” and said, “I’m glad he’s off the face of the Earth, not just for my brother but for all the people he has killed.”
In Zarqa, an industrial city in Jordan, Zarqawi’s family received a steady stream of mourners at their modest whitewashed house.
“If the news is true, I will be happy for his martyrdom and not his death,” Zarqawi’s brother-in-law, Abu Qudama, told reporters who had gathered outside. Later in the day, Jordanian security forces arrested him while he was giving a live interview to Al Jazeera television.
“When people invoke Zarqawi’s name, it’s not because they love him,” said Abu Mohammed Maayteh, 49, who knew him as a child. “It’s a reaction to the American policies in the Middle East. They see in Zarqawi a man who is achieving their dreams to fight America.”
Postings on militant website message boards around the world lamented Zarqawi’s death but said that the resistance against the Americans would continue.
“The death of our leaders is life for us. It will give us more power to continue the jihad,” said a statement on a website affiliated with Zarqawi’s group.
“Zarqawi is a thought in every Muslim’s mind and he will stay alive in our minds forever,” read a posting on another site, by a user who described himself as a Saudi man. “This day is a happy day for the infidels,” read another posting. “The heart is sad for you, Abu Musab.”
Outside a mini-market in Baghdad, Hazim Rasheed, a 27-year-old clerk, felt more light-hearted.
“What Zarqawi and what politics you are talking about?” Rasheed said, jokingly.
“The World Cup begins tomorrow in Germany. Please talk to me about the World Cup and soccer. Damn politics and Zarqawi.”
Times staff writer Laura King in Jerusalem, The Times’ Baghdad staff, special correspondent Vanora McWalters in London and special correspondents throughout Iraq contributed to this report.