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Will his death bring a troop drawdown?

Al-Zarqawi's killing certainly a victory, but insurgency not dead

Editor's note: The following is a summary of this week's Time magazine cover story.


(Time.comexternal link) -- It has been 39 months since the U.S. invaded Iraq, and after so many turned corners have led to dead ends, President Bush wisely shunned any predictions about how much good would come from the elimination of al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

But the sense of elation in the U.S. command was impossible to contain.

With his penchant for videotaped beheadings, spectacular suicide mass killings and Houdini-like escapes from U.S. pursuers, the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi had become the face of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, complete with a $25 million bounty on his head.

Bush had all but branded him Hitler, referring to him more than 100 times in speeches as wanting to "sow as much havoc as possible" and "destroy American life."

After two 500-lb. bombs pulverized his hideout north of Baghdad last Wednesday evening, the terrorist managed to hold on briefly, mumbling and struggling as he died in the ruins on a stretcher brought by soldiers.

His death was a desperately needed break for the White House and the U.S. military. But is it a turning point or just another temporary reprieve from Iraq's seemingly interminable bloodletting? "No one knows," says a Bush aide. "But it's a good problem to have."

The reality is that the removal of al-Zarqawi may unearth as many new dilemmas as it solves.

The hit has forced the administration to confront a messy breach among top aides that had been playing out quietly.

While some officials believe that the U.S. should maintain its troop strength for the foreseeable future, others have argued that the administration should capitalize on any improvements in the situation to accelerate the handover to Iraqis.

Administration aides tell Time that West Wing officials had hoped to reduce the number of troops in Iraq from today's 129,000 to about 100,000 by the end of the year, and possibly before the midterm congressional elections.

But the cascade of bleak news out of Iraq in the past two months -- mass kidnappings, a car bomb hitting a busy market, bodies found shot in the head, mortar rounds killing ministry employees -- had begun to convince them that a drawdown anytime soon would not be feasible.

Aides tell Time that the White House still wants to preserve the option eventually of saying the Iraqis are prepared to assume greater responsibility, allowing the U.S. to "stand down," as Bush puts it in speeches.

That's why administration officials will continue to credit the Baghdad government with every incremental bit of progress in the country. It was no coincidence that U.S. commanders highlighted the relatively passive participation of Iraqi forces in the raid and that administration officials praised new Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for naming his last three government ministers -- even though it took the Iraqis almost two months to agree on them.

"The only way they can ever bring down the troop number is to make a strong case to the American people that the people of Iraq are doing well," a former senior administration official explained.

For the moment, Bush advisers say, a drawdown of U.S. forces isn't imminent. Bush plans to hold a two-day summit at Camp David this week in which Iraqi leaders will be brought in by secure video lines for discussions about how to curb sectarian violence and kick-start reconstruction. Aides stressed this will not be a troop-withdrawal meeting -- but the White House faces pressure to show some kind of progress toward reducing U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Evaluating when the U.S. might be able to draw down its forces may hinge on the answer to another question: What will the absence of al-Zarqawi mean on the ground?

U.S. military officials caution that the death of al-Zarqawi might not do much to erode the insurgency's strength in the short term, if measured by the number of attacks and causalities.

Abu al-Bara, an al Qaeda commander in Iraq, spoke to Time and claimed the organization has a strong succession plan in place.

"Let them be ready for our revenge in the name of our brothers and sisters who become martyrs on Iraqi soil," he said.

Al-Zarqawi's foreign fighters always were merely a sliver of the bad guys in Iraq: intelligence estimates suggest al-Zarqawi commanded, at most, a few hundred men, of whom only a fraction were foreign jihadis.

By most estimates that's less than 5 percent of the 25,000 to 50,000 insurgents believed to be operating inside the country.

Click hereexternal link for the entire cover story on Time

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