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TERROR mastermind Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi is a largely fictitious bogeyman invented to help an American propaganda war in Iraq, it was claimed last night.
Senior US military and intelligence officers admitted they have "overstated" the importance of the Jordanian-born al-Qaeda chief.
Evidence has emerged that spin doctors also bombarded the "home audience" with exaggerated stories about al-Zarqawi, who is rumoured to have personally decapitated British hostage Ken Bigley in 2004.
At a meeting at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas Colonel Derek Harvey, a former military intelligence officer, said foreign rebels were "a very small part of the "numbers". "
He said: "Our focus on al-Zarqawi has enlarged his caricature - made him more important than he really is. The long-term threat is not al-Zarqawi or religious extremists, but former regime types and their friends."
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist leader believed to be responsible for the abduction of Kenneth Bigley, is 'more myth than man', according to American military intelligence agents in Iraq.
Several sources said the importance of Zarqawi, blamed for many of the most spectacular acts of violence in Iraq, has been exaggerated by flawed intelligence and the Bush administration's desire to find "a villain" for the post-invasion mayhem.
US military intelligence agents in Iraq have revealed a series of botched and often tawdry dealings with unreliable sources who, in the words of one source, "told us what we wanted to hear".
"We were basically paying up to $10,000 a time to opportunists, criminals and chancers who passed off fiction and supposition about Zarqawi as cast-iron fact, making him out as the linchpin of just about every attack in Iraq," the agent said.
"Back home this stuff was gratefully received and formed the basis of policy decisions. We needed a villain, someone identifiable for the public to latch on to, and we got one."