The American air strike that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi late yesterday was a long time in coming. The F-16 pilots who put two laser-guided 500-pound bombs into the house in which Zarqawi was hiding ended the life of a terrorist who had been not only an organizer and commander of terrorists in Iraq, but also a funding source that has helped Zarqawi’s theoretical leader—Osama bin Laden—continue to spread terrorist ideology and fear. While Zarqawi’s death won’t end the terrorist war in Iraq, it’s a very big step in that direction.
The operation was a great example of the way U.S. forces work. Intelligence—from Iraqi and other sources, developed over time—showed that Zarqawi was in a particular house near the city of Baquba in such precise and apparently reliable terms that it was deemed to be actionable. Though American commanders wouldn’t confirm this in their briefings to reporters, it’s pretty clear that the intelligence was confirmed by special operations troops on the scene. When the information was confirmed, it was only a matter of moments before the two fast movers canceled Zarqawi’s ticket. Two laser-guided bombs did the job, and the effect of the strike was confirmed.
As Maj. Gen. William Caldwell confirmed, speaking from Baghdad at about 9 a.m. EDT, the confirmation of Zarqawi’s death triggered about 17 other strikes against people in his network that we had allowed to remain at large in the hope they would lead us to their boss. The rolling up of so much of Zarqawi’s network could well end their ability to operate in Iraq for months. Or it could stir the remaining terrorists to prove their remaining strength by mounting many more strikes against the Iraqi government or coalition forces in the next days or weeks. We have to remember that none of the terrorists are irreplaceable. Another Zarqawi may emerge, but it is likely to be months or years before he can reach the level of effectiveness Zarqawi had.
The frustration of our military at Zarqawi’s elusiveness didn’t affect the joint operation that ultimately brought him down. Zarqawi had had several very narrow escapes. In one incident last year described to me by one of our most senior generals through gritted teeth—Zarqawi had literally jumped out of a pickup truck moving at about 30 miles an hour as it approached a U.S. ambush set up at a check point. That sort of luck had been Zarqawi’s since he first went into Iraq in September 2002.
If that date startles you, it shouldn’t. Intelligence sources—in both open source materials and otherwise—have long insisted that Zarqawi entered Iraq in September 2002 at Saddam’s invitation and began then to plan and organize a terrorist force to resist American military intervention. As I wrote in a column on April 1, 2003—a week before Baghdad fell to Coalition forces—terrorist fighters were pouring into Iraq. What wasn’t apparent then was that they were responding not only to Saddam’s call, but to Zarqawi’s as well.
What Zarqawi’s death means is less important than what it doesn’t mean. Before the end of the day, the mainstream media and the Cut-and-Run Party will be caught in their usual cognitive dissonance. On one hand, they’ll say that it’s really no big deal that Zarqawi is dead because the violence won’t end, and the Iraqi government still hasn’t managed to achieve anything like gaining control of the most troubled areas of its nation. They can’t begin to admit that we’re succeeding in Iraq. On the other hand, they’ll be trying to use Zarqawi’s death to prove the wisdom of their only policy toward Iraq: that we’ve done everything we can in Iraq, so it’s time to establish a definite date to withdraw all American forces from the still-unstable nation. We saw that in the White House press room earlier today when Tony Snow was bombarded with questions about when we’re going to declare victory and come home. We have to deny the media and their congressional echo chamber these fallacies, and keep in the front of our minds that neither of those ideas is based on the facts that are literally hurling themselves in reporters’ and congressmen’s faces today.
At this writing, it’s apparent that Zarqawi’s death and the rolling up of much of his network give the Iraqi government an opportunity it hasn’t had before. Coming at the time they have finally—almost seven months after the December election—agreed on people to head up their defense and interior ministries, the Iraqis need to seize the day and use it—as Snow characterized it at the White House this morning—as an important event in the evolution of their democracy. Can the Sunnis, who have supported the insurgency since its beginning, be made to understand, finally, that they have to recognize that the insurgency can’t restore them to the disproportionate and dominant power they had under Saddam? Perhaps, but that is highly unlikely so long as Iraq’s neighbors continue to do their best to prevent democracy from taking hold.
This is the time for the administration to restate our goals in the global war against terrorists and the nations that support them. The war in Iraq doesn’t end with the death of one of the top terrorists or the rounding up of many of the terrorist network. Democracy in Iraq cannot succeed unless and until the terrorist nations that surround Iraq—Syria and Iran—and others that refuse to end support for terrorism, such as Saudi Arabia end their support for Islamic terrorism. That is a goal we haven’t even begun to achieve.
Next Thursday, June 15, Babbin and Ed Timberlake, co-author of Showdown, will take part in a book signing at the Georgetown Barnes & Noble at 3040 M St. NW in Washington, D.C. The event begins at 7:30 p.m.