I almost got Zarqawi. Well, the Marines I was embedded with almost did, anyway. It was just on the eve of the invasion of the city of Fallujah, an insurgent hotbed, in the fall of 2004. The troops I was with stopped a car hightailing out of the place. Unfortunately, Zarqawi left before the troops could get to him — but he did leave a laptop full of stuff, which helped in the hunt.
I did get a chance to meet some of Zarqawi's cohorts. Fortunately for me, they were un-terrorists, killed by coalition forces as they smashed into the terror lair. In fact, most of the bad guys I encountered were all in pretty bad shape: fat, bloated, and drug-filled.
I also saw Zarqawi's handiwork firsthand, while walking around one house with bodies splayed across the floors. Apparently, some of Zarqawi's friends decided these folks didn't have a right to live. I also saw the tools he used to ply his trade — literal stacks of ammo, weapons, and explosives — all of it stashed in schools, mosques, and private homes.
These images came back to me as I took in the lengthy post-mortems (and autopsies) that followed Zarqawi's death last week. I also thought of the successful capture of another nemesis of the coalition, Saddam Hussein. He was found in a spider hole, which coincidentally, was located only about 45 miles from where Zarqawi was killed. His capture involved long nights of hunkering down with Army scouts in marshes waiting for someone to move, long days of trundling over dusty roads looking for suspect vehicles, and perusing organization charts of interrelated terror suspects, which resembled Gambino mob family trees. Similar methods were involved in the Zaraqawi “get.”
Coincidentally, in the last few weeks, we've been working on an investigative report that will air tonight on the FOX Report (7 p.m. ET) about the global network that Zarqawi was building up prior to his death. Using the Internet, he was spreading his brutal message and giving instructions to cells of young Muslim terrorists in scores of countries, including some in Europe and North America.
Some of these confused young men were ordered to go to Iraq and Afghanistan to kill Americans and their allies. Others were invited to train in terrorist camps, and still others were told to stay home and battle the “enemy” on their home turf, like in the deadly bombings in London last summer.
These networks were already starting to be “rolled up” prior to the Zarqawi kill. Terror suspects have been arrested in Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Bosnia, the U.S. and, most recently, in Canada. There, 17 people are charged with plotting a wave of terror attacks, including a Zarqawi-style beheading of Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper.
The authorities, who are working across borders and sharing intelligence culled from the electronic communications of those would-be bad guys, promise there will be more arrests. Hopefully, with new intel gained from raids sparked by the Zarqawi killing, even more of these international types can be snagged. Some suggest that Zarqawi's death will do more to aid in reigning in terror abroad than it will in Iraq. There are still other groups, never aligned with the Jordanian-born Zarqawi, who still violently oppose the changes being instituted in Iraq.
That brings us to a big dose of realism. As noted, I was there when Saddam was nabbed, and that capture was hailed as a turning point in the war in Iraq. But it turns out that it wasn't. I was present at other events in Iraq, again hailed as “watersheds” — that Fallujah invasion, the transfer of power to the Iraqis, democratic elections — all of which followed by more violence and strife. With that in mind, I agree with those in official circles who decided to downplay the overall significance of Zarqawi's death.
That said, I can only think of the dozens and dozens of regular Iraqis, with whom I have met over these past few difficult years, living with the horror of kidnappings, car bombs, suicide bombings, and beheadings, who will rest just a bit easier now that Zarqawi is gone. In fact, I think they hope that it will convince some of the remaining bloodthirsty fellows in Iraq to pack up their terror gear and leave.
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Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent. Follow him on Twitter@GregPalkot.