Monday, May 01, 2006

Did Bush let Zarqawi live for political reasons?

We start off Monday with a potentially explosive report: Confirmation from a CIA official of long-standing reports that George Bush held off on trying to nail al-Zarqawi back in 2002.

The revelation came on an Australian TV show called "Four Corners." The source? Former CIA man Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA's Osama bin Laden effort for six years. He's been talking about the war on terror for a while now. His words:

Mr Scheuer claims that a July 2002 plan to destroy the camp lapsed because "it was more important not to give the Europeans the impression we were gunslingers".

"Mr Bush had Zarqawi in his sights almost every day for a year before the invasion of Iraq and he didn't shoot because they were wining and dining the French in an effort to get them to assist us in the invasion of Iraq," he told Four Corners.

"Almost every day we sent a package to the White House that had overhead imagery of the house he was staying in. It was a terrorist training camp . . . experimenting with ricin and anthrax . . . any collateral damage there would have been terrorists."

The "not wanting to cheese off the French" explanation seems quite weak, given Bush's general indifference to French opinion. But that could well be what the administration told the CIA.

A seemingly more plausible reason, and what makes this confirmation potentially important, is this:

During the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi's presence in the north of the country was used by US officials to link Saddam Hussein to terrorism.

In other words, Zarqawi's continued presence was convenient in helping to build the case for war against Iraq. Never mind that the camp was in Kurdish-controlled territory and thus well outside the part of Iraq that Saddam controlled.

If Bush really held off nailing a known terrorist for political reasons, he has a lot of explaining to do. Maybe he didn't consider Zarqawi and his group important; but then he shouldn't have been citing the group as evidence of Saddam's support for terror.

For more viewpoints, the story is being heavily discussed on Kevin Drum's blog at the Washington Monthly.

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