Features

Tightened noose

Iraq | Coalition forces crack down in Baghdad in the wake of al-Zarqawi's demise

Issue: "Wildfire," June 24, 2006

What a difference a thug makes. Like a fuse timely lit, the death of top terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi triggered a chain reaction that included a crackdown by coalition security forces in Baghdad, media reassessment of the global terror network, and an uptick in public opinion concerning the war in Iraq.

Eager to build momentum in the wake of al-Zarqawi's death, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on June 13 ordered the largest security crackdown since the United States handed over sovereignty to Iraq in 2004. The fledgling government restricted the carrying of concealed weapons to Iraqi security forces and those with permits, tightened curfew hours, and deployed tens of thousands of coalition troops in a security sweep designed to root out al-Qaeda cells in the capital city.

The full-court press was meant to put down the escalating series of shootings, bombings, and kidnappings that in May claimed more than 2,000 lives, most of them civilian. There will be "no mercy toward those who show no mercy to our people," Mr. al-Maliki said in a statement.

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The crackdown order came on the same day that al-Zarqawi's heir apparent, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, vowed in his first public missive to defeat the "crusaders and Shiites" in Iraq. "Holy warriors" in Iraq were stronger than ever, he proclaimed on a website.

He may be too optimistic. Associated Press reporters scouring the terrorist landscape in Paris, Jakarta, Manila, Madrid, and elsewhere reported on June 10 that the global terror network has since 2004 buckled sharply under a concerted international assault. A 2004 AP analysis named a dozen young terrorist leaders who had answered Osama bin Laden's call for jihad. Al-Zarqawi topped the list. Now he and 40 percent of the others are dead, and manhunts in Asia, Africa, and Europe have pushed the rest deep underground. Swedish National Defense College terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp told reporters that new recruits lack the dead leaders' contacts and resources.

Homeland Defense Secretary Tom Ridge last week cautioned that governments can only reduce the terrorist risk, not wipe it out. Still, al-Zarqawi's death alone seemed to buoy American optimism on the war. A USA Today/ Gallup poll taken the weekend following al-Zarqawi's death found that 48 percent believe the United States probably or will definitely win the war, up from 39 percent in April. Forty-seven percent of respondents said things are going well in Iraq; only 38 percent believed that in March.

The president shocked reporters on both sides of the Atlantic when he turned up in Baghdad on June 13 to meet with Mr. al-Maliki. The day before, in a ruse designed to maintain peak security, Mr. Bush pleaded fatigue and bowed out of a scheduled videoconference between himself, the Iraqi prime minister, and top officials from both countries. Then he slipped out of Camp David, ditched his usual helicopter, Marine One, for alternate transportation, and 11 hours later, popped up in Iraq.

President Bush's surprise visit was designed both to encourage and to build support for Iraq's emerging government. "I come not only to look you in the eye," he told Mr. al-Maliki. "I've also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it will keep its word."

In other Iraq developments, the trial of Saddam Hussein crept closer to an end as chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman on June 13 declared an end to the defense portion of the trial. The judge set the prosecution's closing arguments for June 19 and a July 10 deadline for the defense's closing statement.

A June 12 defense outburst may have pushed Mr. Abdel-Rahman over the edge. After Saddam's half-brother and former intelligence chief, Barzan Ibrahim, accused the judge of "terrorizing" the defense, guards dragged Mr. Ibrahim out of the courtroom. As they muscled him out the door, he shouted, "This is dictatorial!"

The judge replied archly, "You know dictatorship."

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