In the days before he was tracked down and killed by US lazer-guided bombs Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was living with almost no guards and only five companions, two of whom were women and one an eight year old girl.
US military were yesterday displaying the few tattered possessions of Zarqawi and those who died with him in the rubble of an isolated house half hidden by date palms outside the village of Hibhib in Diyala province north east of Baghdad.
The ease with which Iraqi police and US special forces were able to reach the house after the bombing without encountering hostile fire showed that Zarqawi was never the powerful guerrilla chieftain and leader of the Iraqi resistance that Washington has claimed for over three years.
Amid the broken slabs of concrete and twisted metal was a woman's leopard skin nightgown, a magazine with a picture of Franklin Roosevelt and a leaflet apparently identifying a radio station in Latafiyah which might be a potential target for attack. It is not clear how long the little group had been in the house.
Zarqawi himself was dragged dying from the ruins of his house by Iraqi police and strapped to a stretcher. "Zarqawi did in fact survive the air strike," said Maj Gen William Caldwell, the US military spokesmen. Covered in blood he survived a few minutes after the Americans arrived and muttered a few unintelligible words. "Zarqawi attempted to turn away off the stretcher,' said Gen Caldwell. "They--everybody--re-secured him back onto the stretcher, but he died almost immediately thereafter from the wounds he received from the airstrike."
The only resistance encountered by black-clad American commandos was from local Sunni villagers in the village of Ghalabiya, near Hibhib, who thought the strangers were members of a Shia death squad. Villagers who were standing guard fired into the air on seeing the commandos who in turn threw a grenade that killed five of the guards. American regular army troops later came to Ghalabiya to apologise and promise compensation to the families of the dead men.
The manner in which Zarqawi died confirms the belief that his military and political importance was always deliberately exaggerated by the US. He was a wholly obscure figure until he was denounced by US Secretary of State Colin Powell before the US Security Council on 5 February 2003. Mr Powell identified Zarqawi as the link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein though no evidence for this was ever produced.
Iraqi police documents were later discovered showing that Saddam Hussein's security forces, so far from collaborating with Zarqawi, were trying to arrest him. In Afganistan Zarqawi had led a small group hostile to al Qa'ida. Arriving in Iraq in 2002 he had taken refuge in the mountain hide out of an extreme Islamic group near Halabja in Kurdistan in an area which the Iraqi government did not control.
Over the last three years Zarqawi has had a symbiotic relationship with US forces in Iraq. After the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 Zarqawi was once again heavily publicised by US military and civilian spokesmen as the preeminent leader of the resistance. His name was mentioned at every press conference in Baghdad. Dubious documents were leaked to the US press. The aim of all this from Washington's point of view was to show that by invading Iraq President Bush was indeed fighting international terrorism.
US denunciations and Zarqawi's own videos of himself beheading western hostages together spread his fame throughout the Muslim world enabling him to recruit men and raise money easily. But, for all his vaunted importance, the US spokesmen admitted that Zarqawi's suicide bombers concentrated almost entirely on soft targets and were responsible for very few of the 20,000 American casualties in Iraq.
It is difficult to track the movements of Zarqawi over the last three years but until the summer of 2005 he appears to have lived in or around Ramadi in Anbar province west of Baghdad. The area is almost entirely Sunni and largely under the control of the resistance, but increased US military activity in Ramadi last year reportedly forced him out. He was also heavily criticised by some other resistance groups and tribes for launching a sectarian war against the Shia which blackened the name of the insurgency at home and abroad.
In moving to Diyala province north east of Baghdad Zarqawi was in more danger. The province is divided between Sunni and Shia along with some Kurds who have been fighting a ferocious local civil war with frequent tit- for-tat killings. For instance police yesterday found the severed heads of two Sunni Arab brothers in the small town of Khan Bani Saad near Baquba, the capital of Diyala province, from which they had been kidnapped a week ago.
Diyala has advantages as a hiding place over other Iraqi provinces. It is better watered than most of Iraq with many rivers and streams running into the Tigris. It is famous in Iraq for its orchards and date plantations and is particularly well known for growing pomegranates which are sold in the large fruit market in Baquba. There are many agricultural villages and the foliage of palms and trees provide cover from air attack though the house in which Zarqawi died was clearly visible from aircraft.
It is not clear how far American or Iraqi government statements about how they located him should be believed. It appears unlikely that he was having meeting with his lieutenants, as was first suggested, given that only two other men died with him.
There are already signs that in propaganda terms the US military--as well as the media--is missing Zarqawi as a single demonic figure who could be presented as the leader of the resistance. A US military commander was already saying last week that Zarqawi's most likely successor was Abu Ayyub al-Masari, an Egyptian born fighter trained in Afganistan whom it is claimed came to Baghdad in 2002 to set up an al Qa'ida cell.
The myth of Zarqawi, which may originally have been manufactured by Jordanian and Kurdish intelligence in 2003, was attractive to Washington because it showed that anti-occupation resistance was foreign inspired and linked to al Qa'ida. In reality the insurgency was almost entirely homegrown, reliant on near total support from the five million strong Sunni community. Its military effectiveness was far more dependant on former officers of the Iraqi army and security forces than on al-Qa'ida. They may also have helped boost Zarqawi's fame because it was convenient for them to blame their worst atrocities on him.
One impact of the death of Zarqawi may be to lessen the threat of attacks in Jordan, his home country. It was he who was behind the attack on hotels in Jordan last year which killed 60 people. He was also the most unrelenting advocate in the resistance for attacks on Shia Muslims, 60 per cent of the Iraqi population, as heretics, enemies of the Sunni just as much as American soldiers.
The killing of Zarqawi is a boost for the newly formed government of Nouri al-Maliki, but Iraqis noticed that when announcing it he stood at the podium between Gen George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, and Zilmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador. "It showed the limits of Maliki's independence from the Americans," noted one Iraqi commentator. "It would have been better if they had let him make the announcement standing alone."
In the wake of Zarqawi's death Maliki was able to announce that the names of his new Interior Minister Jawad Khadim Polani and Abdul Qadr Mohammed Jassim as Defence Minister. Both are obscure figures but also former members of the Iraqi army opposed to Saddam Hussein. They will have difficulty getting control of their own ministries.
Maliki has said privately that his biggest problem is that his cabinet consists entirely of ministers who are the representatives of different parties. They were only appointed after rancorous negotiations. He cannot dismiss them however disobedient, incompetent or corrupt they may be. Each minister uses his or her ministry as a fiefdom to be exploited for patronage and money.
By the time he died Zarqawi's list of enemies included the US, the Iraqi government, many of the Sunni tribes and insurgent leaders. The biggest surprise surrounding his death last week was that it took so long to happen.