So it looks like the US finally got Zarqawi. You never know for sure with these things, but given how shattering it would be for US credibility if he turns up smiling in another video next week I'd assume that the news is true (and al-Qaeda in Iraq has confirmed it, according to al-Jazeera). I couldn't be happier to see this guy dead. Calling him a brutal thug does a disservice to brutal thugs. The beheadings, the rabid anti-Shi'ism, the takfiri jihadism - across the board he was the worst of the worst. Death by what his followers will call martyrdom is far too good for him, but seems a reasonable compromise. What will his death likely mean for the insurgency and for the wider political scene?
His death will not likely end or even diminish the Iraqi insurgency, but it may change its character. Zarqawi has been a real organizational and mobilizational force in the Iraqi jihad, but does not seem to have been the central mastermind that his and American propaganda alike made him out to be. The Iraqi insurgency has always been far more complicated than either "regime dead-enders" or Zarqawi's jihad (for detailed analysis of how the insurgency has involved, you couldn't do better than Ahmed Hashim's masterful Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, or this recent International Crisis Group analysis). Zarqawi had enemies and rivals within the insurgency, and those groups will likely soon take advantage of his absence to stake their own claims to leadership. As long as the political conditions driving the insurgency remain, it will continue - and others will take advantage of those conditions and try to stake their competing claims to leadership, just as did Zarqawi. (Chris Allbritton thinks that Zarqawi's location might have been tipped by Sunnis who have decided to cooperate with Maliki's new government - if he's right, that could be much more significant than Zarqawi's death per se, and get at those political conditions; my first guess had been that the video Zarqawi released contained clues that got him nailed, which is also what many of the commentors on the jihadi boards are saying - "the video was Zarqawi's greatest mistake").
Al-Qaeda in Iraq will also likely regroup - I'm less confident than Allbritton that his removal will cripple the jihadi networks. Other figures from within his own movement will also likely appear to take his place. The new figures will be lionized in AQI's sophisticated internet propaganda campaign, just as Zarqawi will become the great shahid in their propaganda. As long as the killing fields of Iraq are a target of opportunity for jihadis to attack Americans, and to produce the steady stream of imagery so central to jihadist propaganda, the jihadi component of the insurgency will continue as well.
The one place where Zarqawi's death might make a real difference is in the Sunni-Shia dynamic. Zarqawi's rabid anti-Shi'ism went beyond tactical or strategic considerations, of trying to push civil war ot make the American project untenable. Even by radical Islamist standards, his anti-Shi'a focus was extreme (though not by any means unique). If Zarqawi's group drops off in prominence for a while as it reorganizes, you might see less of an anti-Shi'a focus in the attacks. Not necessarily - it's very possible that the civil war dynamics have already escalated too far that removing one of its drivers won't make a difference any more. But that's one area where the removal of Zarqawi from the field could conceivable change the tenor of the insurgency.
In the bigger picture beyond Iraq, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden are likely relieved. Zarqawi's rabid anti-Shi'ism and brutal methods, and his willingness to murder innocent Muslims, had become a real liability for al-Qaeda Central's strategy of winning over mainstream Muslim and Arab publics. The Amman hotel bombings last November epitomized the ways in which Zarqawi's narrow-minded campaign could turn at least some potential supporters of al-Qaeda's anti-American political vision against the means of violent jihad. Zarqawi's death won't prevent others of the ever-metastasizing jihadist splinter groups from carrying out similar splinter attacks, but it does remove one particularly potent advocate of such attacks. Jordanians at least can be relieved, since other jihadis might not share Zarqawi's particular hostility towards the Hashemite Kingdom (Jordanian officials are claiming a role for Jordanian intelligence in the operation, which wouldn't surprise me - al-Jazeera's Amman correspondent was evidently arrested along with one of Zarqawi's relatives in mid-interview).
As for the competition many observers saw between Zawahiri and Zarqawi to succeed bin Laden when he dies, the latter's death obviously removes that particular challenge. It doesn't remove the underlying political dynamic, though. Beyond the individual personalities, Zawahiri represented a vision of a centralized al-Qaeda setting the broad contours of the strategy of the jihad, while Zarqawi represented the most potent example of the more general trend towards decentralization and localization of the jihad. Zarqawi himself may be out of the play, but the tension between al-Qaeda Central and a decentralized jihad will only grow. (I heard Abd al-Bari Atwan say that Zarqawi had already been losing ground in this internal struggle, and that he had been somewhat isolated by Zawahiri's manuevering. Who can really say what's true there?)
I've seen some early suggestions that with Zarqawi dead the US can declare victory and go home. Sadly, no. Way back in the mists of time, Howard Dean was pilloried for stating that the capture of Saddam Hussein hadn't made the US safer. He was widely ridiculed at the time, but he was right. It didn't mean that capturing Saddam and putting him on trial for his crimes wasn't a good thing, or that it didn't help at the margins. But it didn't end the insurgency or resolve the structural problems facing the US in Iraq. The same thing likely applies to Zarqawi's death. There may or may not be good arguments for the US pulling out of Iraq, but killing Zarqawi won't resolve those arguments one way or the other.
More later when I have the chance to look through the Arab media and jihadi boards to collect their reactions. .... and now it's later. Happened too late for any of the dailies to write about it, so that will have to wait. Al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya are both covering it heavily, in a pretty straightforward way. The boards I've looked at so far seem fairly consistent: accepting the fact of his death remarkably quickly (less questioning than I would have expected) and describing it as martyrdom in the path of god (exactly as I would have expected) and saying that hundreds of Zarqawis will rise to take his place. Some dark murmurings about how he was betrayed from within his ranks, and plenty of nasty words for the Shia who are seen as behind it all and whose media are celebrating his death.
UPDATE: well, here I thought this might be a controversial position to take. But when Bill Roggio, Juan Cole, and Zal Khalilzad all roughly agree with my take, then I guess I'm just right in the middle of a big old consensus. Which of course means that I'm probably wrong.