Who's Next? ; Special Report: Iraq Insurgency the US Got Its Man. Now It Must Target the Real Threat in Iraq Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi Was Never as Important a Figure in the Insurgency as Was Claimed, and the Manner of His Death Proved It, Says Patrick Cockburn

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In the days before he was tracked down and killed by US laser- guided bombs, Iraq's most wanted man was living with almost no guards and only five companions, two of whom were women and one an eight-year-old girl, it emerged yesterday.

The US military displayed the few tattered possessions of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, 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 more than three years.

Amid the broken slabs of concrete and twisted metal was a woman's leopardskin-print 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 Major General William Caldwell, the US military spokesman. Covered in blood, he survived a few minutes after the Americans arrived and muttered a few unintelligible words. "Zarqawi attempted to sort of turn away off the stretcher," said Gen Caldwell. "They -everybody - re-secured him back on to the stretcher, but he died almost immediately thereafter from the wounds he received from the air strike."

The only resistance encountered by 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.

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 surrounding his death last w was that it took so long to h And the manner in which 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 the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, before the US Security Council on 5 February 2003. Mr Powell identified Zarqawi, as the link between al-Qa'ida and Saddam Hussein, though no evidence for this was ever produced.

Indeed, Iraqi police' documents, discovered later, showed that Saddam Hussein's security forces, far from collaborating with Zarqawi, were trying to arrest him. Arriving in Iraq in 2002, he had taken refuge in the mountain hideout of an extreme Islamic group near Halabja in Kurdistan, n an area which the Iraqi government did not control. As for al-Qa'ida, in Afghanistan Zarqawi had led a small group hostile, and was never a close adherent of Osama bin Laden.

Over the past three years Zarqawi has had a symbiotic relationship with US forces in Iraq. After the capture, of Saddam in December 2003, Zarqawi was once again heavily publicized by US military and civilian spokesmen as the pre-eminent leader of the resistance. The aim was to show that by invading Iraq, President Bush was fighting international terrorism. The US denunciations, and Zarqawi's own videos of himself beheading Western hostages, combined to spread his fame throughout the Muslim world, enabling him to recruit men and raise money easily. …