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Zarqawi - a street thug turned militant

Osama bin Laden named Zarqawi as his deputy in Iraq after he pledged allegiance to the overall Al Qaeda leader.

india Updated: Jun 08, 2006 20:10 IST

Al Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi was a one-time street thug turned militant waging a bloody war to expel US forces from Iraq which earned him a $25 million US bounty on his head.

Osama bin Laden named Zarqawi as his deputy in Iraq after he pledged allegiance to the overall Al Qaeda leader in October 2004. Bin Laden called him the prince of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The most feared leader of the Sunni Arab insurgency, Zarqawi has inspired an apparently endless supply of militants from across the Arab world to blow themselves up in suicide missions killing thousands of people in Iraq.

His methods became so brutal that bin Laden's deputy is reported to have told him they were hurting the image of Al Qaeda, seen as one of the most ruthless militant organisations in the world.

Zarqawi, in his late 30s, was believed to have personally taken part in the 2004 beheading of an American hostage in a video broadcast on an Arabic television channel.

The childhood of Zarqawi, the son of an elder tribesman, was shaped by poverty and the politics of the bleak industrial city of Zarqa in Jordan, home to mostly downtrodden Palestinian refugees and Bedouin tribes.

He was once known only for petty crimes, but influenced by radical mosque preachers in the city, Zarqawi left in early 1989 for Afghanistan where his fellow Islamists were then fighting the "great infidels" -- the Soviet army.

Zarqawi -- whose real name is Ahmed Fadhil al-Khalayleh -- was jailed in Jordan in 1993 after his return from Afghanistan the previous year.

One prison guard remembers him as a charismatic figure who commanded respect in jail.

"He used to lift weights and exercise. He was seen as a disciplined, strong man. People listened to him," he said.

A court in Jordan sentenced him to death in absentia in 2002 for plotting attacks against US and Israeli targets in the kingdom.

Jordan also accuses him of masterminding the 2002 assassination of US diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman.

Before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Zarqawi was linked to Ansar al-Islam, a militant group operating in a remote part of Kurdish-held northern Iraq, on the Iranian border.

Its base was destroyed during the invasion, but Zarqawi soon resurfaced as leader of a militant group called Tawhid wal Jihad, which later changed its name to Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Iraq seemed to offer him an ideal opportunity to realise his dreams after the fall of Saddam Hussein left a deep security vacuum.

Many thousands of deaths later, he is likely to become a symbol of martyrdom for young Arab militants who believe suicide bomb belts strapped to their waists will give them the same status as Zarqawi.