Native son staged attack on Jordan

Al-Zarqawi's popularity could suffer

November 12, 2005|By JOHN MURPHY | JOHN MURPHY,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

ZARQA, JORDAN -- As a teenager growing up in this industrial city in the 1980s, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi earned a reputation as a neighborhood thug who roamed the streets looking to scuffle with anyone over anything from girls to politics to soccer teams.

Those who dared to challenge him often were sorry they did. He was, by all accounts, ruthless.

"If he could reach your eye, he would take it. If he'd reach your heart, he'd take that too. There was no hesitation," said Haithem, 37, a metal worker in Zarqa who spent much of his youth running the other way when he saw al-Zarqawi and remains frightened enough of him that he asked that his own last name not be used.

This local bully swapped the knives and rocks of his youth for the explosive belts, car bombs and beheadings of adulthood and turned into one of the world's most wanted men. Al-Zarqawi's group, al-Qaida in Iraq, has been responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers, contractors and Iraqi civilians in his bloody campaign to end U.S. occupation of Iraq. For information leading to his capture, the United States is offering $25 million - the same amount offered for the capture of Osama Bin Laden.

Al-Zarqawi's latest attacks were the suicide bombings that ripped through three hotels this week in Amman, Jordan's capital, killing 60 people, injuring scores more and jarring the kingdom out a long period of relative calm.

The blasts have been widely condemned by Jordanians, who poured into the streets of Amman again yesterday to denounce their homegrown menace, chanting "Burn in hell, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi!" and "Death to Zarqawi."

Twelve suspects have been detained in connection with the bombings, officials said yesterday, and the government confirmed that al-Zarqawi was the prime suspect as the organizer of the attacks.

In the city where al-Zarqawi was born and raised, many people are still willing to celebrate him as a hero for his continuing war against American forces in Iraq.

"For sure we love him because he is fighting the jihad against foreign fighters," said Abu Abdul Rahman, a thin man dressed in a navy blue dishdasha, as he stepped out of a mosque that al-Zarqawi used to attend.

Whether this support will continue now that Zarqawi has targeted fellow Jordanians is not clear. Some analysts suggest that his bold attacks striking civilians, including a wedding party at one of the hotels, could prove to be his undoing.

"I'm curious if the people decide that Zarqawi has gone off the deep end and that his methods are despicable or will they decide it is a tragic error?" said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group in Amman. "I don't know the answer to that."

Widespread condemnation of the Jordan bombings by the Arab world caused al-Zarqawi's group to issue a second Internet statement "to explain for Muslims" why they targeted hotels in an Arab capital packed with Jordanians and other Arabs.

"Let all know that we have struck only after becoming confident that they are centers for launching war on Islam and supporting the Crusaders' presence in Iraq and the Arab peninsula and the presence of the Jews on the land of Palestine," the latest statement said, according to the Associated Press.

It said the hotels were "favorite places for the work of the intelligence organs, especially those of the Americans, the Israelis and some western European countries," as part of what the group called "invisible battles in the so-called war on terrorism."

For his part, Rahman, a 38-year-old school bus driver for a kindergarten in Zarqa, did not appear troubled by the civilian deaths. They were victims of "collateral damage" in an attack on three hotels - all of them part of American chains - that he considers "American colonies."

"There's a possibility for a mistake," Rahman said. "I don't think Zarqawi aimed to kill civilians. If it was Zarqawi who did this, for sure there was a target and the civilians died by accident."

For other residents of Zarqa, a working-class city of more than 1 million people about 20 miles northeast of Amman, al-Zarqawi's latest handiwork was another embarrassment drawing unwanted attention to their city.

Mohammed Salieh, a deputy in the Zarqa governor's office, dismissed al-Zarqawi's supporters as "simple, poor, narrow-minded" people who have been manipulated into supporting his cause. "They are happy because he is from Zarqa and because he is renowned so they are renowned," he said, although now they might reconsider.

"I think Zarqawi will lose points among members of his own family and Jordanians as well," he said.

Born Ahmed Fadel al-Khalayleh, al-Zarqawi was the son of a poor, working-class family, and from an early age he was in trouble with authorities. After dropping out of school, he was briefly jailed in the 1980s. Townspeople say he drank heavily and used drugs, both forbidden under Islam.

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