While U.S. coalition forces and Abu Musab al Zarqawi were intertwined in a perverse deadly duel, Iraqis were caught in the crossfire. To most Iraqis Zarqawi was an American creation–he was just another foreigner using Iraq to stage his pyrotechnics under the auspices of spreading his ideology. Iraqis are happy to see him eliminated from the scene.

Zarqawi’s death on June 7 hasn’t provided an opportunity for U.S. forces to wrap up operations in Iraq, where the violence is continuing unabated. A man going by the name Abu Hamza al Muhajer is apparently taking Zarqawi’s place. That’s about all that seems to have changed.

Prior to the war and occupation few Iraqis knew of Zarqawi. Those who did know of him saw him as an outlaw under Saddam’s regime who had been on the run since his release from a Jordan prison in 1999. After the invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi quickly rose to assume the role of the baddest of the bad. He aligned himself with the resistance and became the symbol of anti-occupation bitterness. He used the resistance and the rage against U.S. coalition forces to enhance his status among Iraqis and Muslims throughout the world.

His ability to elude U.S. forces and operate with impunity inside Iraq elevated him mythical status. Many Iraqis did not believe he existed. They saw him as a fabrication of U.S. propaganda to justify a continuation of the occupation and the draconian measures used against Iraqi civilians.

This was confirmed earlier this year by internal military documents stating that the Pentagon was conducting a “propaganda campaign” to bolster Zarqawi’s standing in Iraq. According to uncovered military documents “the effort has raised his profile in a way that some military intelligence officials believe may have overstated his importance and helped the Bush administration tie the war to the organization responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.” Col. Derek Harvey, who served as a US military intelligence officer in Iraq said, “Our own focus on Zarqawi has enlarged his caricature, if you will–made him more important than he really is.”

Zarqawi received a major plug during Colin Powell’s infamous speech at the United Nations in February 2003. This catapulted him from an outlaw to the most wanted criminal since bin Laden. The Bush administration at that time was trying desperately to link Saddam Hussein with al Qaeda and found an obscure connection with Zarqawi’s presence in Iraq. Never mind that Saddam Hussein was hunting him down or that Zarqawi was isolated in the Northeastern part of Iraq under the watchful U.S. eye. These were mere details that stood in the way of building a case for attacking Iraq.

It has become painfully evident that Jordanian-born Zarqawi used Iraq as a boot camp for his recruits. Evidence is mounting that before his death, Zarqawi was in the process of globalizing his own boutique brand of al Qaeda. According to Jordanian officials, Zarqawi was using Iraq to recruit suicide bombers and others to train in Iraq and then return back to their home bases awaiting instructions to carry out terrorist activities.

On the other hand, U.S. coalition forces used Zarqawi as a figurehead to prove that the Iraq War was worth fighting. He served as a convenient scapegoat for the U.S. by putting a menacing face on the war on terrorism and providing fodder against the war’s critics and the occupation’s opponents. He still looms larger than life even after his death. Conservative columnist George Will in writing about him post-mortem, called him “the most effective terrorist in history.”

Nevertheless, most Iraqis don’t adhere to the brand of Islam that Zarqawi espoused. His desire to create sectarian strife within Iraq caused Iraqis to further distance themselves from him. His dramatic tactics of suicide bombings, beheadings, kidnappings and indiscriminate attacks against civilians and places of worship quickly alienated the locals. The turning point came when the al Askari mosque was bombed; an act that many believed was carried out by Zarqawi and his followers. This in large part finally led to local Iraqis to turn against him and to tip off the authorities to his whereabouts.

Few Iraqis believe that Zarqawi’s death will bring relief from the violence that has plagued their lives since the invasion over three years ago. They have seen this type of optimism vaporize into thin air just as it did after the killing of Saddam’s sons and the capture of Saddam himself. Each one of those moments was followed by jubilation and promises of better days to come. Those days never came and the violence only got worse. In fact this past year has been the deadliest of all with over 1,000 Iraqis killed per month by direct attacks and shootings, according to Iraq Body Count.

For the U.S. coalition forces, this is yet another important moment that should not be squandered. At each “turning point” during the last three years we have seen immense psychological and symbolic boosts disappear within days. In fact, the opposite occurred; the attacks against U.S. forces and Iraqi police became more organized and deadly. These dramatic moments if not followed by equally dramatic improvements in people’s lives create cynicism and despair giving the insurgency a further boost. Rather than moving toward reconciliation, the raids of neighborhoods and mass arrests increased thus creating further alienation and distrust among the population.

For the new Iraqi government and the U.S. to succeed in Iraq, there needs to be a reallocation of resources. Rather than spending billions of dollars hunting down the next villain, why not focus on the elements that can make the lives of Iraqis more livable and create a more sustainable and just society.

In its latest budget request to Congress, the administration has dramatically cut back much needed funds for traditional democracy promotion. Funding for civil society building projects has all but come to a halt. For fiscal year 2007, only $63 million is allocated for democracy building compared to over $50 billion for military spending in Iraq. According to The Washington Post, this shortfall “threatens projects that teach Iraqis how to create and sustain political parties, think tanks, human rights groups, independent media outlets, trade unions and other elements of democratic society.” Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, a right wing think tank stated: “This is the time to show that democracy promotion is more than holding an election. If the U.S. can’t see fit to fund follow-up democracy promotion at this time then it is making a mistake.”

We cannot afford to keep turning corners only finding ourselves back where we started. Too many lives, American and Iraqi, are being wasted. It is time for the U.S. and its coalition forces to change direction and allow the Iraqi people to rebuild their country.

What the U.S. needs is a change in policy not a change in villains.

Anas Shallal, an Iraqi-American, is a founding member of the Iraqi American Alliance, a businessman and a Foreign Policy In Focus analyst. He lives in Northern Virginia.

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