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Going after Iraq's most wanted man

US airstrikes in Fallujah are targeting Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his followers. Is he the mastermind of the insurgency?

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The US military is training its guns now on one of the most intractable challenges to January elections in Iraq: the city of Fallujah.

The Sunni city is seen as a base of operations for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant accused by US officials of terrorist plots in at least four countries and of ties to Al Qaeda. Mr. Zarqawi's Iraq-based group, Tawhid and Jihad, claims responsibility for beheading hostages, kidnappings - including two Americans and a Briton last week - attacks on churches, and the bombings of Iraqi police stations that have left more than 400 people dead.

US bombs rain down almost daily on Fallujah, targeting alleged Zarqawi associates and killing roughly 70 people this month. But some terrorism analysts, and old associates who spent time with Zarqawi in a Jordan prison, say he runs an organization separate from Al Qaeda. They say that killing the poorly educated, tattooed Jordanian - or many of his followers - will do little to slow the wave of terrorist attacks inside Iraq.

"Just like with Osama, if you were to kill him today, it wouldn't make a difference at all to these networks he's helped create,'' says Rohan Gunaratna, a counterterrorism expert and author of "Inside Al Qaeda." "While much of the suicide bombing in Iraq is coordinated by his network, it's being driven from the bottom up. Regional and local operational leaders plan and execute attacks. Zarqawi probably doesn't know much about them ahead of time and he doesn't need to."

This doesn't mean the shadowy Zarqawi isn't an important contributor to Iraq's instability. But analysts such as Mr. Gunaratna say that his importance lies in having used contacts developed while living in Afghanistan between 1999 and 2002 to stitch together a loose network of likeminded militants stretching from Iraq north through Turkey and into Europe. Zarqawi is just the most visible figure today in a tight-knit group of operatives, many with guerrilla and terrorist training gained in Afghanistan.


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