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Al-Zarqawi gains ground

By Henry Schuster

Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.
Protesters burn a poster of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born man who heads al Qaeda in Iraq.



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Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

AMMAN, Jordan (CNN) -- Iraq is on a knife-edge, bleeding and possibly headed to civil war, if not already there.

And Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is tightening his grip on the handle of that knife, according to those close to the situation.

In the past, the U.S. military talked of al-Zarqawi and the rest of the foreign fighters in Iraq as separate from local insurgents, though linked by common goals and common enemies.

That seems to have changed, even as the U.S. negotiates with Sunni politicians, and in some cases, those linked to the insurgents.

Al-Zarqawi and his al Qaeda in Iraq followers are certainly not the only ones pushing Iraq into chaos. But the bloodbath since the bombing of a Shiite Muslim mosque in Samarra has made his position stronger among Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority who were favored by Saddam Hussein.

Al-Zarqawi has claimed credit for many of the worst attacks against Iraq's Shiites, and further bolstered his support by referring to them as "the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy and the penetrating venom."

Listen to Sheik Zeidan, once one of the most prominent tribal chieftains in Anbar province, now an exile across the border in Jordan.

"If there was a gap between the Sunnis and Zarqawi before Samarra, this brought it together, the gap was brought together," he said.

"They [the Sunnis] are getting killed. They looked left and right and the only savior they had was Zarqawi. Now Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is their only leader, the only one providing them protection."

Sheik of nowhere

If you want a barometer of how bad things are in Iraq, spend some time with Zeidan.

When we've talked to him in the past, he's said the situation in the Sunni triangle was bad, but not irreversible.

Just have the Americans withdraw, he would say, and the people will desert al-Zarqawi, flocking back to their more traditional leaders who were the tribal sheiks such as himself (Zeidan was kicked out of Iraq in 2004 by the Americans).

That's not what he's saying now, after Samarra.

What's happened now is that al-Zarqawi is more powerful than ever, despite claims by a new group called the Anbar Revenge Brigade that they are targeting al Qaeda in Iraq and its leader on behalf of the tribes.

In Zeidan's view, al-Zarqawi -- who is from the largest tribe in Jordan -- has used his knowledge of tribal loyalties to bind him to the local population. He's also killed any sheiks who dare disagree, including several who recently agreed to negotiate with the Americans.

"I do know people, tribal people, who did negotiate. But they all got killed. Anyone who is talking to the Americans got killed," Zeidan says.

Ali Shukri, a retired Jordanian general and former adviser to the late King Hussein, agrees.

"Those tribal leaders who are in Iraq are definitely living in fear," he said.

Those who are not in Iraq and happen to be in the region are afraid of what Zarqawi could do to their immediate families. It seems he could reach them and he did reach them.

The role of the tribes

Shukri says the Sunni tribes in western Iraq are key to ending strife in Iraq because their leaders could keep the peace there and end the insurgency.

But he says the U.S. refused to negotiate with them after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Now, he says, there is a power vacuum that is being filled by al-Zarqawi.

start quoteI give you the news, there is a civil war.end quote
-- Sheik Zeidan, exiled Iraqi tribal leader

"Historically, these people kept the peace in the western part of Iraq," Shukri said. "Now we see the tribes becoming indifferent. It has reached the point where some of my tribal friends say al-Zarqawi has become more important in the traditional tribal areas of western Iraq than the actual historical leaders. This is bad."

And it leaves Zeidan mostly powerless and in exile. He's committed to getting the U.S. out of Iraq, but he is also afraid of that because he says he fears the Shiites and the Iranians who back them even more.

"The failure of America to win in Iraq means victory for Iran. And our real enemy is not America, it is Iran," he said.

Zeidan says al-Zarqawi no longer has to rely on foreign fighters to fill his ranks as he is winning over young Iraqi Sunnis.

"There has become a culture of martyrdom among the younger generation that never existed before," Zeidan says, adding that the movement is encouraged by al-Zarqawi, but also fueled by U.S. actions against the Sunnis.

Zeidan no longer sees al-Zarqawi leaving Iraq if the U.S. pulls out. Instead, he says, al-Zarqawi will stay and lead the Sunnis in their fight against Iran.

Does all this mean Zeidan believes there is a civil war already under way in Iraq?

"I give you the news, there is a civil war," is his reply.

Kingdoms on the brink?

Here in Jordan, there was defiance after the triple suicide bombings killed more than 50 people last November.

start quoteAnd I hope to God, the way I see things is wrong. Because if it is correct, the whole region will be suffering.end quote
-- Ali Shukri, retired Jordanian general

Just this week, the Jordanians indicted al-Zarqawi and several others for planning those bombings. And there were arrests last week that allegedly forestalled another possible attack against another high-profile Jordanian target.

But civil war in Iraq and al-Zarqawi's growing strength there have the Jordanians worried.

"The more the situation continues in Iraq, the more [al-Zarqawi] will have a free hand. And it will come across us, not only across Jordan, but we are going to see worse things happening in Saudi Arabia," said Shukri, pointing to the recent failed al Qaeda attack on an oil facility in Saudi Arabia.

Shukri is not by nature a pessimistic man, but as he recounts all the threats facing not only Jordan, but the region, he shakes his head.

"It's not good, it's not good at all. And I hope to God, the way I see things is wrong. Because if it is correct, the whole region will be suffering."

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