Late last year, after Musab al-Zarqawi’s group bombed hotels in Jordan, I wrote that the move would widen the rift between Zarqawi and the nationalist-Baathist leadership of the Iraq insurgency. It was already clear back then that the U.S. was negotiating with the latter element, and that these guys would have happily killed Zarqawi themselves as part of any long-term compact.
The Baathists are unlikely to stand by and watch their own interests imperiled by those who would seek to make Iraq a new headquarters for terror attacks across the Middle East. Their objective, after all, is to restore some version of a regime detested by al Qaeda.
And with everyone from Ayman Zawahiri to the Baathists alarmed by his appetite for snuff videos that repulsed even most insurgent sympathizers, and also his strategy of wanton murder of Shiites, he was being increasingly sidelined in the insurgent leadership.
The fact that the U.S. managed to find and kill Zarqawi the day after the new Iraqi government released 2,500 insurgent-sympathizers from prison (they were greeted and given money by leaders of the main Sunni party in parliament), announced a reintegration of Baathists into political society, and appointed a Sunni former Baathist general as defense minister seems to suggest that some sort of deal has been done. Obviously, the elimination of Zarqawi is not going to end the insurgency or stop a civil war. But it may be a sign that the U.S. and its allies in Iraq have reached a new understanding that rehabilitates the Baathists, which would likely split the insurgency and isolate the Qaeda element. Now, the question is whether the U.S. can hold the most powerful Shiite parties on board after tilting its policy back towards the Baathists. Much may depend on the state of play between Washington and Tehran. And on that front, so far so good. (More on this soon.)