ON DEC. 13, 2003, officials in the United States, Britain and other coalition nations swelled with pride at the words of L. Paul Bremer III, the chief U.S. administrator in Iraq: "Ladies and gentlemen, we got him!" Bremer, flanked by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, announced to the world that U.S. forces had caught the elusive Saddam Hussein. In the United States, many officials felt that with Hussein in custody, the insurgency would abate or at least be more easily defeated, allowing a new Iraq to emerge.
I was on my way to Baghdad to help rebuild the Iraqi security forces when the news broke. Though I was overjoyed by the capture, I was aware that the insurgency would continue.
Two and a half years later, several different insurgencies still rage. Sunni tribalists in Fallouja and elsewhere, Sunni Salifists in Baghdad and the three northern provinces and foreign fighters for Al Qaeda in Iraq all challenge the Iraqi government and its coalition backers. Catching Hussein turned out to be not nearly as important as we believed.
Now a similar euphoria greets the news that the Jordanian-born Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike Wednesday. The announcement, this time made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, has elicited much of the same kind of elation that the capture of Hussein did. But I fear that it too will have little or no effect on the insurgencies.
Zarqawi was both a leader of and a problem for Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Qaeda's international leadership -- Egyptian-born Ayman Zawahiri and Saudi native Osama bin Laden -- wanted to rein in Zarqawi's vicious and savage attacks, including the videotaped beheadings of some of his victims. Zarqawi was truly terrorizing -- but even the Al Qaeda leadership felt his brutality against fellow Muslims was counterproductive to their greater goal of defeating the West. In addition, the horrific nature of Zarqawi's snuff films made it more difficult for his foreign jihadists to maintain a working relationship with other Sunni insurgents led by former Hussein supporters and Sunni tribal leaders in Al Anbar province.
This antipathy by the Sunni leadership toward Zarqawi forced the Jordanian to leave Al Anbar and relocate to Diyala province, north of Baghdad, where he was killed Wednesday. This hostility also might explain why the U.S. received a tip from Iraqis about Zarqawi's whereabouts.
But what will the death of Zarqawi mean to the hopes for peace in Iraq? Probably very little. An Al Qaeda website has already declared him a martyr. New leadership has likely stepped into place and is probably planning the next attacks on Iraqi Shiites and coalition forces. Zarqawi was credited with recruiting fighters from Jordan, the Palestinian territories and other lands previously unconcerned with Iraq, but his "glorious" martyrdom at American hands will probably prove a potent recruitment tool for the fighters he trained.
The overarching problem is that death and martyrdom are all that any Al Qaeda leader expects, so Zarqawi may be as effective in death at inspiring terrorist acts as he was in life.
In fact, his death could motivate the insurgency in the same way that the 1995 assassination of Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shiqaqi proved a recruitment tool for Palestinians.
The death of Zarqawi will not make it less dangerous for soldiers, journalists and others working in Iraq. Kidnappings will probably continue. The day-to-day danger from roadside bombs and suicide attackers will not be significantly decreased.
The foreign fighters in Iraq are not likely to go home because their leader has been slain. His death could actually make it easier for them to form partnerships with the Sunni insurgent groups who disliked Zarqawi's tactics.
ALTHOUGH THE death of Zarqawi may have little operational effect, knowing that this sick butcher is gone does raise the spirits of coalition forces and others working in Iraq. In that sense, Zarqawi's death is a reason for joy. And the successful strike on Zarqawi shows that the United States military is not incompetent and outmatched, as our enemies would have Iraqis believe.
Still, Al Qaeda will continue without missing a beat. So will its spawn -- the London subway bombers, the accused plotters in Canada and the terrorists as yet undiscovered.