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Passing on Zarqawi

Behind the administration's decision not to kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2002.

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BEFORE THE DUST SETTLED on the rubble that had been Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's safe house, critics of the Bush administration were already arguing that our latest battlefield success in Iraq had to be measured against the administration's failure to kill Zarqawi back in 2002. But a full understanding of the situation the administration faced when it had the opportunity to strike Zarqawi in 2002 shows that this was not a simple case of Bush administration blundering--even if, in hindsight, the decision was a mistake.

The background for this most recent criticism of the administration's performance in Iraq comes from a 2004 report that appeared in the Wall Street Journal and on NBC. In 2002, the Pentagon had formulated a plan to attack Zarqawi's operations in northern Iraq (where he had relocated after leaving Afghanistan) using cruise missiles and airstrikes. The administration didn't give a green light to this operation. The Journal quoted the criticisms of former NSC counterterrorism director Lisa Gordon-Hagerty ("I said why didn't we get that ['son of a b--'] when we could."), while NBC reported similar remarks from former NSC member Roger Cressey.

Such criticism reappeared last week in Newsweek's coverage of Zarqawi's death. The magazine attributed the decision not to strike Zarqawi to the administration's desire to "exploit" him as proof of connections between Iraq and al Qaeda.

BUT TO SUGGEST that it was a no-brainer for the U.S. to attack northern Iraq in 2002 ignores a couple of key considerations. If the administration had struck Zarqawi then, it would have met a torrent of criticism for allegedly violating international law--criticism that could have interfered with its diplomatic efforts preceding the 2003 invasion.

In 2002, Zarqawi's base in Iraq was located in the northern No-Fly Zone, a region above the 36th parallel which a U.S.-led coalition prevented Iraqi aircraft and ground forces from entering. The U.S., France, and Britain established that NFZ in April 1991, following the ceasefire that ended the Gulf War, in order to protect the inhabitants of northern Iraq from violence at the hands of Saddam's regime. (A second NFZ was established later, south of Baghdad.) The coalition cited as justification four Iraq-related U.N. Security Council Resolutions: Resolution 678 (authorizing the coalition to use "all necessary means to uphold and implement" the previous Kuwait-protection resolution"), Resolutions 686 and 687 (outlining the postwar ceasefire), and Resolution 688 (responding to "the repression of the Iraqi civilian population"). But none of these resolutions specifically provided for a NFZ.

The lack of specific authorization for a NFZ resulted in critics on both the left (such as the New York Times editorial page) and the right (such as conservative national security law scholar Scott Silliman). Throughout the 1990s, the Clinton administration maintained this controversial legal position by operating under rules of engagement that circumscribed its efforts in the northern NFZ to prevent the Iraqi government from oppressing its people or targeting coalition personnel and resources.

But in the run-up to the 2003 war, the NFZs came under even heavier criticism. Critics suspicious of the Bush administration's plans argued that the administration would use heightened engagement in the NFZs as a pretext for war.