Columns » Ernest Dumas

Soft on terrorism


President Bush's hopes for re-election rest almost entirely on the public's perception that he's a merciless scourge of terrorists. Polls show that it is about the only area of public policy where voters rank him well ahead of John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee. It is more perception than reality, and the perception depends upon the media's continuing to lie doggo. But if reports like that of Jim Miklaszewski get much circulation the whole charade will be undone. Miklaszewski is the well-traveled television reporter, one of the few good ones in the breed. He reported the other day that starting long before the invasion of Iraq President Bush blocked three separate efforts by the military to take out the terrorist leader who is now assigned the blame for most of the mayhem in Iraq the past several months. The White House apparently worried in 2002 that if Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi and his Ansar al-Islam group were destroyed it would eliminate one of Bush's prime justifications for going to war. And he very badly wanted the war. Some of the most pervasive urban legends, circulated on talk radio and right-wing web sites, are those about President Clinton blocking efforts to kill Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders. None of them is true but the Bush administration has deftly promoted the legends without mentioning them specifically. Only he, so the administration says, had the guts to go after the terrorists pre-emptively before they had a chance to strike. Zarqawi is the Jordanian-born Sunni who the administration says is trying to foment civil war among the tribes and religious sects and blame it on the Americans. General John P. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told a congressional committee last week the Americans there were pretty sure that Zarqawi was behind the bombing of Shiite holy sites that have killed more than 700 people and injured thousands in recent weeks. American intelligence intercepted a letter that they believe was from Zarqawi asking al-Qaida, bin Laden's network, to organize attacks on Shiite sites to foment civil war. U. S. officials said al-Qaida turned down the proposal, and now it denies complicity in the attacks on the Shiites. It would be pretty serious if we could have taken out Zarqawi and much of his network long before they did so much carnage and Bush stopped it. Imagine if Bill Clinton had done such a thing. On the day that Abizaid was laying the blame for the bloodshed on Zarqawi, Miklaszewski was reporting for NBC News that in June 2002, while Bush was trying to organize a coalition at the United Nations to authorize an invasion of Iraq, intelligence sources learned that Zarqawi had set up a weapons laboratory at his camp in Kirma in northern Iraq where deadly ricin and cyanide were being produced. Zarqawi's suspected association with al-Qaida was the sole basis for administration claims that Saddam Hussein harbored terrorists and was in league with Osama bin Laden and, by implication, could conceivably have had some connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was a fanciful connection all along because Zarqawi's camp and laboratory were in one of the no-fly zones in Iraq that was protected by the United States and was off limits to Saddam's men. The area was essentially a U.S. protectorate. When they pinned down Zarqawi's location in northern Iraq, the Pentagon drafted plans to wipe out the lab and probably Zarqawi himself with cruise missiles and airstrikes, but the plan was debated to death in Bush's national security office. Four months later, intelligence learned that Zarqawi planned to use ricin in terrorist attacks in Europe. The Pentagon readied another plan to attack, but Bush scotched it, too. By that time, the course had pretty well been set for an invasion of Iraq with or without international support. In January 2003, still weeks before the invasion, police arrested six terrorist suspects in London and found a lab connected with Zarqawi's camp in Kirma. The Pentagon geared up again for an assault but Bush's Security Council killed it a third time. Miklaszewski reported that Pentagon officials were sure of their plan but that the administration at the time feared that eliminating the terrorist base in northern Iraq would undercut the case for war. Bush was still making a show of enlisting U.N. support for the invasion and he and Dick Cheney were telling the American public Saddam was in league with the 9/11 terrorists. When American forces did attack the camp after the war started Zarqawi and most of his followers had broken camp and left the country. Like Osama bin Laden, Zarqawi is still loose and wreaking havoc. Taking him out two years ago would have eliminated one pretext for war, which was as flimsy as the other major justification, that Saddam Hussein had a vast arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and was soon to have nuclear weapons that he would unleash on us. But politics of the basest kind trumped concerns about terrorism, as it has almost every time. A few thousand Iraqis paid the price this time but, hey, what's so terrible about that?

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