Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's network of al Qaeda-linked insurgents is emerging as a self-sustaining force, despite repeated blows by U.S. forces and the reported death of his second-in-command, U.S. intelligence officials and other experts say.
The Zarqawi network, responsible for some of the Iraqi insurgency's bloodiest attacks, has grown into a loose confederation of mainly native Iraqis trained by former Baath Party regime officers in explosives, small arms, rockets and surface-to-air missiles.
Since U.S. counter-insurgency assaults forced many of its operatives to exit Iraq's cities, counterterrorism officials say al Qaeda has been trying to set up a safe haven for training and command operations in western Anbar province. U.S. military officials on Tuesday said they had killed Zarqawi's No. 2 in Iraq, an operative identified as Abu Azzam. Al Qaeda did not verify the U.S. claim.
But intelligence officials said the death of Zarqawi himself would not mean al Qaeda's defeat in Iraq, partly because he has ceded authority over day-to-day operations to regional commanders and tribal leaders who operate according to his strategic guidelines.
Zarqawi's network, believed to consist of 2,000 to 5,000 hardcore fighters and an equal number of active supporters, represents 10-15 percent of the Iraq insurgency in numbers of fighters, officials say.
Defense and counterterrorism officials said Zarqawi's insurgents have recently been joined by elements of Jaish Mohammad, a 4,000-member insurgent group loyal to Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. The addition gives Zaraqwi new tactical skills inside Baghdad, a defense official said. Although the Jordanian-born Zarqawi has long been associated with foreign fighters, officials believe 85 to 90 percent of al Qaeda in Iraq's members are Iraqi.
A minority of foreign fighters carry out most of the group's suicide bombings, which has made Zarqawi's network appear more effective than other segments of the insurgency. While committing only about 2 percent of insurgent attacks, officials say, the Zarqawi network has killed 17 percent of the insurgency's victims, the vast majority of them Iraqis.
Zarqawi, who has a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head, has also surpassed the insurgency's Baathist and former regime elements in part by using the Internet as a propaganda tool for circulating sensational images of attacks on U.S. forces.
With Iraq's constitutional referendum due on Oct. 15, officials say Zarqawi appears to be consolidating his position at the forefront of the Sunni insurgency by declaring all-out war on the country's majority Shi'ite population. But his main strategic objective remains the expulsion of U.S. forces from Iraq, a goal that officials say has helped him unify support among local Sunni Arab insurgents.
Attacks on civilians have earned Zaraqwi criticism from Sunni political groups such as the Iraqi Islamic Party. Other mainstream Sunni groups have avoided the issue. But there is growing concern that Sunni political isolation will only deepen if the upcoming referendum vote ends leads to the adoption of the proposed constitution, Reuters reports.