First off, make no bones about this. Al-Zarqawi was no friend to Iraq, nor was he a friend to the United States (at least not openly. But more on that later.):
Al-Zarqawi declares war on Iraqi ShiaHis sole objective was to protect Sunni Muslims, and to foment rebellion and turmoil in a contentious land.
Wednesday 14 September 2005, 22:37 Makka Time, 19:37 GMT
Iraq's al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has declared "all-out war" on Shia Muslims in Iraq in response to a US-Iraqi offensive on the town of Tal Afar, according to an audio clip posted on the internet.
"The al-Qaeda Organisation in the Land of Two Rivers (Iraq) is declaring all-out war on the Rafidha (a pejorative term for Shia), wherever they are in Iraq," said the voice which could not be immediately verified but sounded like previous recordings attributed to al-Zarqawi.
"As for the government, servants of the crusaders headed by Ibrahim al-Jaafari, they have declared a war on Sunnis in Tal Afar," the clip added.
Prior to 2003, Al-Zarqawi had little interest in Iraq or Iran, or in fact any issue outside of the Jordanian monarchy. In 1989, he travelled to Afghanistan to assist in the remnants of the resistance against the Soviet Union's invasion. Here, he met Osama bin Laden (whom you'll recall was at this point receiving funding from the CIA.) In 1992, he was arrested in Jordan for trying to overthrow the king, and served seven years. Shortly after his release from prison, he attempted to blow up a Radisson Hotel in Amman, Jordan which housed many Americans and Israelis. Fleeing Jordan, he ends up in Pakistan, where OBL gives him $200,000 to start Jund Al-Sham, a Jordanian movement designed to set up a caliphate in place of the monarchy.
After September 11, Zarqawi received a minor injury in Afghanistan and fled to Iraq where he received treatment in a hospital run by Uday Hussein, Saddam's son. Here is the only direct pre-war connection between Saddam and Al-Zarqawi: a band-aid.
Zarqawi settled in the northern regions of Iraq, where he was engaged in the anti-Kurd skirmishes there. Now, while that sounds like it would be in support of Saddam, Saddam is a wholly-secular figure, while Ansar al-Islam is an Islamist group. Further, Osama bin Laden had, in the past, denounced Saddam Hussein for not being an Islamist, and vowed fatwa against him (during Gulf War I.)
As I noted below, it wasn't until the February 2003 speech to the United Nations, where Colin Powell claimed Zarqawi was working hand-in-hand with Osama bin Laden AND Saddam Hussein (half right is still wrong on issues like this) that a connection between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein was made, using Zarqawi.
Curiously, Zarqawi and bin Laden seemed to be more rivals, and not-too-friendly ones, up to and shortly after this.
In 2004, the jig was up:
CIA Review Finds No Evidence Saddam Had Ties to Islamic Terrorists. You may recall it was about this time that Bush started preaching the "freeing Iraq" trope.
Mr. Doggity points out this article regarding Zarqawi:
Zarqawi owed his rise to the US in two ways. His name was unknown until he was denounced on 5 February 2003 by Colin Powell, who was the US Secretary of State, before the UN Security Council as the link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida. There turned out to be no evidence for this connection and Zarqawi did not at this time belong to al-Qa'ida. But Mr Powell's denunciation made him a symbol of resistance to the US across the Muslim world. It also fitted with Washington's political agenda that attacking Iraq was part of the war on terror.[....]"The Zarqawi psy-op programme is the most successful information campaign to date."
No sooner was Saddam captured than the US spokesmen began to mention Zarqawi's name in every sentence. "If the weather is bad they will blame it on Zarqawi," an Iraqi journalist once said to me. It emerged earlier this year that the US emphasis on Zarqawi as the prime leader of the Iraqi resistance was part of a carefully calculated propaganda programme. A dubious letter from Zarqawi was conveniently discovered. One internal briefing document quoted by The Washington Post records Brigadier General Kimmitt, the chief US military spokesman at the time, as saying: "The Zarqawi psy-op programme is the most successful information campaign to date." The US campaign was largely geared towards the American public and above all the American voter. It was geared to proving that the invasion of Iraq was a reasonable response to the 9/11 attacks. This meant it was necessary to show al-Qa'ida was strong in Iraq and play down the fact that this had only happened after the invasion.
Can't make it much plainer than that, now can you?
UPDATE: Mr Doggity points out that Greg Palast thinks the Bushies picked a fight with Zarqawi.
snarkasm, snarcasm, snarky
Osama bin Laden