Baghdad under Curfew in Fear of Zarqawi Successors

Iraqi women mourn the death of their relatives, who were killed in the restive city of Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, June 9, 2006 (AFP Photo)

Even as US and Iraqi officials predicted that Zarqawi's surviving lieutenants would launch new attacks to assert their organization's continued presence in the country, two car bombs exploded in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods killing 15 people.

   "The curfew is a measure to keep people indoors as there could be more bombings like the ones last night, following Zarqawi's death," a defense ministry official said.

   Vehicles were banned from the streets of Baghdad and nearby Baquba, close to where Zarqawi was killed, from 11:00 am (0700 GMT) until 5:00 pm (1300 GMT), coinciding with Friday prayers.

   Zarqawi was killed Wednesday in a joint US-Iraqi raid.

   Imposition of curfews in Baghdad and Baquba addresses the main question in the wake of his death, namely the extent to which it will affect the wave of violence claiming dozens of lives across the country each day.

   In marked contrast to the aggressive and victorious rhetoric characteristic of the weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, or even Saddam's capture that December, US officials have been remarkably cautious.

   US President George W. Bush described the event as a "victory" in the war on terror and a chance to "turn the tide."

   But he warned that violence that has claimed the lives of nearly 2,500 US troops and left many more wounded will "carry on without him (Zarqawi).

   "We have tough days ahead of us in Iraq that will require the continued patience of the American people," he said.

   Websites devoted to Al-Qaeda and other jihadist causes have been flooded with messages of support for the organization and pledges to continue the fight.

   Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group and a long time Iraq observer, pointed out that Zarqawi's legacy will long outlive him.

   "He has helped unleash a sectarian dynamic which is going strong and has gained momentum and is difficult to resist," he said.

   He has also left behind a flexible, decentralized organization spread around the country that is capable of functioning without him, said Shiite Ali Dabbagh, a political analyst and former parliamentarian.

   "We cannot expect a halt to the violence in the country because Zarqawi stayed a long time in Iraq during which he formed cells working independently from each other and recruited an unknown number of Iraqis and Arabs."

   Iraq watchers add the bulk of Iraqis opposing US troops are nationalists and Saddam loyalists, with foreign Islamic fighters representing only five to seven percent of the total.

   The US military, however, has always described Al-Qaeda as a key segment of the insurgency since it carries out a disproportionate number of suicide attacks and focuses its efforts on killing civilians and inciting sectarian civil war.

   The February 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, attributed to Al-Qaeda, unleashed a wave of sectarian killing throughout the country that has claimed the lives of thousands and continues in place like Baghdad and Baquba.

   The Sunnis, however, point out that Shiite militias are carrying out their fair share of violence as well, especially in the case of feuding between rival groups in the predominantly Shiite southern provinces.

   "The situation there has nothing to do with Al-Qaeda or Zarqawi. The daily killings, kidnappings and decaptitations, the majority of these are due to miltias linked to the political parites, not to Zarqawi," said Zhafer al-Ani, a political scientist from Baghdad University and a leading Sunni politician.

   In announcing Zarqawi's death, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was blunt about any supporters hoping to continue the Jordanian-born militant's work.

   "Anyone who looks to emulate Zarqawi, we will find him and kill, this is an open war between unified Iraqi people and sectarianism," he said.

   Nearly lost amid all the attention surrounding Zarqawi's death, was a significant event for Maliki's fledgling government as he managed to finally get his choices for security ministries approved.

   Together with the new defense minister, Sunni and former general Abdel Qader al-Obeidi, Interior Minister Jawad Polani will have to bring the country's security services under control and implement a new Baghdad security plan.

   Baghdad, home to a quarter of the country's population, is second only to  the Sunni-dominated western province of Al-Anbar as the focus of much of the violence in the country.

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