It's good news that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is dead. Any member of the civilized world ought to cheer the demise of a terrorist who killed civilians with bombings and beheadings.
But his death — brought about by a U.S. air strike that was apparently ordered after a captured Zarqawi lieutenant disclosed Zarqawi's favorite hiding places — may not mean much in terms of bringing peace, democracy and stability to Iraq. His al Qaeda in Iraq — which was estimated to number no more than several hundred fighters — made up the smallest slice of the insurgency. His departure will not have much impact on the forces fueling the fighting and chaos in Iraq. The Sunni-based insurgency draws on the 300,000 or so former members of the Iraq army that was disbanded in May 2003. And the Shiite militias have thousands of armed loyalists. Though Zarqawi was an evil leader responsible for the most dramatic acts of terrorism, he was something of a sideshow. Recently, an Iraqi intelligence officer told me that the most pressing problem in Iraq was not Zarqawi and his jihadists but the infiltration of the military and security forces by the various militias. These groups are responsible for the death squad-like activities (kidnappings, murders) that have terrorized Iraqis. They will not be given much pause by the successful attack on Zarqawi. (And Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Rand, notes that after George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the two people most satisfied by Zarqawi's death are Osama bin Laden and his number-two Ayman al-Zawahiri, for now they have been spared a competitor for attention and handed a martyr.)
Given that Saddam Hussein's capture did not become the turning point that some commentators claimed it would be — "the beginning of the end," former CIA director James Woolsey said at the time — the White House did not insist that Zarqawi's death would lead to progress in Iraq. Bush was reasonably realistic when he spoke about the successful strike: "Zarqawi is dead, but the difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues. We can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without him. We can expect the sectarian violence to continue."
He did add, "Zarqawi's death is a severe blow to al Qaeda. It's a victory in the global war on terror." But Bush did not mention that it was his invasion of Iraq that fully allied Zarqawi with al Qaeda. Prior to the war, terrorism experts considered Zarqawi more of a rival than a partner. And he did not mention that four years ago — before Zarqawi had become a major terrorist figure and before he had become responsible for the deaths of hundreds (if not thousands) — the Bush White House chose not to take him out when it could.
In March 2004, NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski reported that the White House had three times in 2002 turned down a Pentagon request to attack Zarqawi, who then was believed to be running a weapons lab in northern Iraq — in territory not controlled by Saddam Hussein's government. Miklaszewski wrote that "the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam." That is, the Bush White House let Zarqawi alone so it would have an easier time selling the war in Iraq.
Here are some excerpts from the Miklaszewski article:
NBC News has learned that long before the war the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out his terrorist operation and perhaps kill Zarqawi himself — but never pulled the trigger.
In June 2002...[t]he Pentagon...drafted plans to attack the camp with cruise missiles and air strikes and sent it to the White House, where, according to U.S. government sources, the plan was debated to death in the National Security Council...
Four months later, intelligence showed Zarqawi was planning to use ricin in terrorist attacks in Europe.
The Pentagon drew up a second strike plan, and the White House again killed it. By then the administration had set its course for war with Iraq.
"People were more obsessed with developing the coalition to overthrow Saddam than to execute the president's policy of preemption against terrorists," according to terrorism expert and former National Security Council member Roger Cressey. ...
The Pentagon drew up still another attack plan, and for the third time, the National Security Council killed it.
Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi's operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.
The United States did attack the camp at Kirma at the beginning of the war, but it was too late — Zarqawi and many of his followers were gone.
The administration put off attacking Zarqawi because it wanted to invade Iraq. That invasion made Zarqawi a more important target — and a more powerful killer. His death is welcomed — but it remains part of a larger and tragic story of miscalculation.
By David Corn
Reprinted with permission from The Nation