Far from the image cultivated by the Bush administration of a powerful insurgent leader, the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi was a small-time thug who was disliked by everyone.
He claimed to be the leader of "al-Qaida in Mesopotamia," but according to a lengthy profile on al-Zarqawi in the current issue of The Atlantic, Osama bin Laden reportedly hated al-Zarqawi and thought him a nuisance.
For all his power, al-Zarqawi apparently couldn't keep his own band of insurgents from ratting him out to U.S. forces to collect a $25 million reward.
Perhaps the Sunnis in Iraq who comprise most of the insurgency grew tired of al-Zarqawi and other foreign fighters when his group blew up mosques. Perhaps they realized the videotaped beheadings of hostages and the massive suicide bombings were acts that didn't help their cause. Perhaps they realized that al-Zarqawi was doing flashy things to burnish al-Zarqawi's reputation, not to help the insurgency.
But here's where the irony gets especially thick. The United States apparently had multiple chances to kill al-Zarqawi in 2002 and early 2003, but deliberately passed up the opportunities.
Four months later, another attack plan was drawn up, and it was again rejected. By that point, the Bush administration had decided on an invasion of Iraq, and a raid on al-Zarqawi's camp would have undermined its plans to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
After six men were arrested and a chemical weapons lab was uncovered in London in January 2003, the Pentagon again drew up an attack plan on al-Zarqawi. Again, it was rejected. By the time his camp was attacked when the Iraq invasion began in March 2003, al-Zarqawi and most of his followers had disappeared.
For all the tough talk about pre-emptive strikes against terrorist threats, the Bush administration took a pass on taking out al-Zarqawi. The pursuit of its Iraq war plans, plans based on made-up information, were more important than acting on a real threat that was corroborated by accurate information.
It seems cynical, but it appears that the Bush administration needed al-Zarqawi to be alive to help justify the invasion. Killing him would have exposed something that the White House didn't want us to know Saddam Hussein was a paper tiger who posed no threat to his neighbors, and that the only terrorists in Iraq were in areas patrolled by the U.S. and its allies.
But no matter, the announcement of al-Zarqawi's death suspiciously timed to coincide with the announcement of the completion of the formation of a new Iraqi government and seemingly calculated to knock the reports of Haditha and other U.S. atrocities off the front page is being hailed as a turning point in the war.
Sadly, none of this makes a great deal of difference for the U.S. forces still in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi's death will have little impact on the local insurgency, our soldiers are still trapped in the middle of a civil war and there remains no exit strategy. The tragedy of this unnecessary war and occupation will continue, even as the Bush administration tries to convince us that it is worth it.