What to make of

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What to make of this flood of news about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?

It is now being treated almost as a given that Zarqawi was behind the horrific wave of attacks that struck Baghdad and Karbala on Tuesday. Today, however, there is an unsubstantiated claim that Zarqawi was in fact killed during the war in early April. And on top of all this there’s the report — potentially explosive in a Washington context — that the White House passed on several opportunities to take out Zarqawi and his group before the invasion because doing so would have weakened their case for going to war.

Let’s take up the last point first.

According to this NBC News story, the Pentagon drew up plans to strike Zarqawi’s outpost in the North several times. And each time those plans were rejected at the White House even though each appeared to hold a solid prospect of success and despite the fact the US was receiving increasing signs that Zarqawi and Ansar al-Islam posed a serious terrorist threat.

Now, on his site today Andrew Sullivan writes: “I wonder how killing Zarqawi could have conceivably impeded our bid to topple Saddam.”

Though Andrew and I often trade brickbats on our sites, that’s not my intention in this case because I think he’s giving this story just the seriousness it deserves. But I think there’s a pretty obvious reason why eliminating Zarqawi could have slowed or impeded the drive for war.

To understand why, we’ve got to go back to the role Zarqawi and Ansar played in the administration’s case for war.

As we’ve noted here many times, there was always a category difference between the White House’s case on WMD and its case on Iraq’s ties to al Qaida.

In brief, the first may have been debatable and exaggerated, but the second seldom rose above the level of ridiculousness. Yet to the extent that the White House had any argument about terrorist ties, Zarqawi and Ansar were at the center of it.

Let’s remember what the argument was.

Ansar was a Sunni Islamist terrorist group operating from Iraqi Kurdistan which had ties of some sort and degree with al Qaida. Zarqawi, a Jordanian national and accomplished terrorist bad guy, had set up shop with Ansar and he too was affiliated with al Qaida — though again the degree and closeness of the connection is a matter of some controversy . To add to the storyline, Zarqawi had apparently been to Baghdad for medical treatment.

So Zarqawi and Ansar were in Iraqi Kurdistan. Thus they were ‘in Iraq’. And they were linked to al Qaida. So al Qaida was ‘in Iraq’. That was the argument.

Now, there was a pretty big problem with this argument. Namely, the US and the UK had made Iraqi Kurdistan into a virtual Anglo-American protectorate through its no-fly zones which kept not only Iraqi air power but basically all of Saddam’s forces out of the region. The Kurds themselves had already set up a de facto government, though the region where Ansar was operating from was one they didn’t control.

In other words, saying Ansar was operating out of Iraq was deeply misleading in anything other than a narrowly geographical sense since Ansar was operating from area we had taken from Saddam’s control. Saddam might as credibly — perhaps more credibly — have charged us with harboring Ansar as vice versa.

(A side note: various Iraq hawks have alleged that Saddam’s secret police were in contact with or even controlling Ansar. And it’s true that Saddam and Ansar had a common enemy: the pro-American Kurdish parties. But I’ve never seen any credible evidence to persuade me of such links.)

In any case, to review, using Ansar and Zarqawi as proof of a Saddam-al Qaida link had serious evidentiary and logical problems. But that didn’t stop the White House from making it a centerpiece of their argument — as Colin Powell did during his presentation at the UN.

In the immediate lead-up to the war there were various parts of the White House’s argument for war that were becoming weaker by the day. That, after all, was what was happening with the inspectors themselves who were, in the weeks and months just before the war, generating lots of new evidence that threw many of the earlier suspicions of WMD into real doubt — particularly on the nuclear front.

The reports we have now about the White House’s refusal to move against Zarqawi are still incomplete. And I think we’ve got to keep open the possibility that there were military or diplomatic restraints we were operating under that are not yet clear.

But if the reports bear out, the White House’s reasons for not moving against Zarqawi when we could have don’t seem to require much explanation. If we got rid of Zarqawi and Ansar the much-trumpeted Iraq-al Qaida, already so profoundly tenuous, would have collapsed altogether. To put it bluntly, we needed Zarqawi and Ansar.

That would mean it was a political decision — one intended to aid in convincing the American people of the necessity of war — for which we are now paying a grave price.

Later, we’ll discuss why I’m still not entirely convinced that Zarqawi is behind all these recent attacks.

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