Jonathan Steele

Al-Zarqawi's absence will not affect the nationalist insurgency in Iraq.

THE SUCCESS of any insurgency always depends on the degree of its popular support. In a country occupied by foreign troops and where the Government is not perceived as independent, the most powerful source of that support is nationalism. The occupiers are the insurgents' best recruiting tool. These basic truths have never been taken on board sufficiently by the Bush administration or the British Government in dealing with Iraq.

Since the invasion, the U.S. has continued to underrate the extent of nationalist resentment and resistance.

The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the self-styled leader of the Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, offers a new chance to adjust to reality. His killing has been greeted with relief and delight by many Iraqis. Though attracted to Iraq by the magnet of the occupation, he was seen as the architect of a terror campaign that had nothing to do with the real insurgency. It was designed to provoke chaos and civil war. An extreme Sunni fundamentalist who believed Shias were not true Muslims, he and his group had increasingly turned to attacks on Shia targets.

His ultra-radicalism earned him rebukes from within the Al-Qaeda itself. Ayman al-Zawahiri, its deputy leader, wrote him a letter last summer warning of the risk of losing popular support, questioning the wisdom of attacks on ordinary Shias, and denouncing the videos of hostage-beheadings.

Zarqawi and other foreign jihadis were always a minority within the resistance. Outsiders have never exceeded 10 per cent of the numbers of fighters and suspected insurgents killed or detained by the occupation and Iraqi forces. Clearly, Zarqawi had Iraqi allies, and had an influence on inciting suicide bombings.

A cycle of violence and revenge has been set in motion, and will not easily be reduced. So Zarqawi's death may have little impact in the short term. It will not affect the nationalist insurgency that targets the Americans and the British, and those defined as collaborating with them.

The appointment on Thursday of new Security Ministers gives Iraq's Government a better image. They now need to control the killers in their own forces. Zarqawi used murder to incite and exacerbate sectarianism. His death removes the provocateur. It is up to the Iraqi Government to roll back the consequences.