I don't know if champagne is chilling somewhere in the Pentagon, but perhaps it should be. While the media was reporting an "increase" in U.S. combat deaths over the weekend, there were continuing signs that the insurgency is losing its steam, and that terrorist ring-leader Musab al-Zarqawi's days are numbered.
Zarqawi is putting on a brave front. Last week, he released a new video, showing his face on camera for the first time. Inspired by the bin Laden school of jihadist video, we saw Zarqawi firing an assault rifle, clad in a suicide vet and supposedly directing terrorist operations. It was, altogether, a pitiful display, designed to demonstrate that Zarqawi remains relevant in the insurgency.
Let's being with Zarqawi's status as "leader" of Al Qaida in Iraq. There have been peristent reports that the fugitive Jordanian has been removed from his leadership position, due to his penchant for killing innocent Iraqis by the score. Zarqawi's decision to mimic bin Laden on the tape was no accident; by emulating "the Sheik" on his propaganda tape, Zarqawi hoped to demonstrate that he remains worthy of leading Al Qaida troops in Iraq.
Zarqawi has also unveiled a new strategy for battling the U.S.-led "crusaders" in Iraq. Over the weekend, he announced plans to "raise an Army" to confront coalition forces directly. This tactic is designed to create the impression of a powerful, growing insurgency, now able to take on U.S. troops in conventional-style attacks. In reality, the strategy is intended to paper over a glaring deficiency in Zarqawi's organization: a declining number of foreign-born fighters willing to undertake "martyrdom" operations.
If Zarqawi is serious about a more "conventional" insurgency, it it tantamout to an admission of defeat. You may recall that the terrorists tried more "direct" attacks in the early days of the U.S. occupation of Baghdad. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of terrorists died when they tried to challenge U.S armored columns, backed by attack helicopters. The failure of that stage of the insurgeny forced the adoption of other measures, notably the roadside bomb campaign--the only terrorist tactic that has achieved any degree of success in Iraq. Recruiting and training a terrorist "army" will presumably divert resources away from the bombing campaign, another indication that things aren't going well for the jihadists.
Then, there's the question of where Zarqawi will recruit his fighters. True, the assorted fanatics will keep filtering across the border from Syria (and the Iranians may supply a few martyrdom candidates as well), but Iraq is proving a less fertile ground for new terrorists. Over the weekend, a senior Iraqi government official indicated that leaders of seven major insurgent groups are talking about a settlement to end their role in the insurgency. We're heard this kind of talk before--and I won't believe it until I see the terrorists stacking their weapons in Iraqi Army garrisons--but the "surrender" of these groups would be a powerful blow to the terrorists--and Zarqawi's plans. It's certainly hard to raise an Army when a large group of potential recruits decides to give up the struggle.
And, if that weren't enough, there's word that the dragnet around Zarqawi has tightened a bit more. Michelle Malkin reported over the weekend that U.S. special forces came close to nabbing the terrorist leader in a recent raid. Again, we've heard this type of report before, but there appears to be a major difference between this "close call" and a previous incident, when Zarqawi stumbled into a U.S. roadblock and had to flee on foot. According to Marine Corps Times, a veritable "all-star" team of SOF units has been assembled in Baghdad, and they're hot on the trail of Zarqawi. These units, operating as part of Task Force 145, include elements of SEAL Team 6, Delta Force, the British Special Air Service, U.S. Army Rangers, and the Air Force's 24th Special Tactics Squadron (combat controllers and pararescue specialists), among others. While it is true that SOF elements have been in the Sunni triangle since before the fall of Baghdad, this concentration suggests that the hunt for high-value targets has taken on a new urgency, and better intelligence is fueling the search.
Zarqawi might want to keep that suicide vest handy. It might come in handy very soon.