ABC News got a big scoop on the other broadcast networks tonight by being the first by an hour or more to report that U.S. and Iraqi forces had located Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a Baquba safehouse and killed him along with seven lieutenants who were meeting there. U.S. helicopter gunships may’ve provided the firepower which killed him. CNN is now reporting that Jordanian intelligence and possibly members of Zarqawi’s Iraqi network may’ve provided intelligence information beginning as early as two weeks ago allowing the Iraqis to pinpoint his location.
I find it hard to believe that NBC continued broadcasting Jay Leno and CBS continued with David Letterman while a competitor scooped them with news that the third most wanted man in the world had just been killed.
But what astonishes me even more is that the U.S. decided to blow him to smithereens instead of capturing him. After all, this is the second or third most wanted terrorist in the world. Wouldn’t capturing him alive have been an extraordinary coup? Either he provides you with extremely helpful information about his network and activities as some captives have done; or if he clams up you put him on trial before the world for his crimes as an example of what happens to people who do the things he’s done.
Not knowing the background for this operation, there may’ve been some reason that rockets were called in instead of forces to capture him. But on the face of it this looks like a typically rash and hasty decision by the Bush Administration at the expense of a future potential intelligence bonanza. In fact, it makes you wonder whether Bush and Cheney looked at the mess the Iraqis have made of the Saddam Hussein trial and said: “It’s just not worth it to capture and try him. Let’s just get it over with and embrace rough justice.”
UPDATE: Glad to report that this NY Times reporter is asking the same question as I. Here’s the answer U.S. forces provided to him:
As American commandos surrounded the house where they believed Mr. Zarqawi to be, the commander on the ground decided to call in the airstrike. It was not clear why the American officer decided against storming the house and capturing Mr. Zarqawi, which would have given the Americans a chance to interrogate him.
One reason, General Caldwell said, was that such an assault might have cost many American lives without any guarantee of taking Mr. Zarqawi alive. Another reason, asserted by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld on Thursday, was that Mr. Zarqawi might have escaped, as he had many times before when the Americans had him in their sights.
“You have to ask yourself: is it worth putting American men and women’s lives at risk to go in to what was probably a heavily fortified and guarded thing, in order to grab him?” General Caldwell said.
If I were in U.S. intelligence the answer to that question for me would be: “hell yes.” If you take this guy alive and you get him to talk think how many lives you save. Think how many Al Qaeda operations you thwart. Think how many Al Qaeda operatives you freak out by letting them think that Zarqawi is spillinghis guts to you. I’m for a little less blood lust and a little more consideration of the long-term benefits of bringing him in alive. But blood lust appears to have won out.
Another warning: no doubt the Bush Administration is going to be crowing tomorrow as they did after Hussein’s capture. But i say here exactly what I said then. Zarqawi was an important agent of terror in Iraq. Things can’t help but be a little better without his catalytic influence. But I see Zarqawi as a symptom of Iraq’s problems, not as a major cause. Zarqawi resonated in Iraq because its underlying problems presented him such fertile ground for terror operations. Nothing in the conditions on the ground in Iraq have changed with his death. His network will undoubtedly go on. I see very little changing there unless and until the U.S. decides to leave and/or the various Iraqi factions of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds figure out a way they can live with each other. I don’t see either one of these developments happening anytime soon. Therefore, the chaos we’ve witnessed there over the past few years will continue and very little will change.
So if you hear talking heads tomorrow talking about a new day in Iraq, don’t you believe it.