Who was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? Well, he was a really bad guy, no doubt, who beheaded innocent victims on videotape and did his damnedest to foment a kind of holy hell in Iraq through the promotion of sectarian violence. Beyond that, however, the issue gets a bit more complicated.
For instance, in the President’s now-infamous October 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati, Bush did not mention Zarqawi’s name but said that “Al Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior Al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks.” When Colin Powell spoke at the United Nations on February 5, 2003, he did say that Zarqawi’s group, Ansar al-Islam, operated “in northern Kurdish areas outside Saddam Hussein-controlled Iraq” before mentioning the medical treatment. Based on this flimsy premise, Powell spun out roughly 1,000 words detailing the dangers Zarqawi posed.
Soon enough, however, the distinction between Saddam-controlled Iraq and Kurdish-controlled Iraq, where Zarqawi did his dastardly deeds, began to disappear. On one Sunday in November 2003, Donald Rumsfeld used Ansar’s prewar activities in Iraq to help justify the invasion on three separate Sunday shows; none of his tough-minded questioners–including Tony Snow, George Will, George Stephanopoulos and Tim Russert–thought to correct him.
Having served its polemical purpose, as Matthew Yglesias pointed out in a “Think Again” column for the Center for American Progress, Zarqawi’s group largely disappeared from the Administration’s propaganda campaign until a March 2003 raid produced another surge of media coverage, which focused heavily on the group’s work on chemical weapons and its ties to Al Qaeda, while neglecting to note its lack of connection to Saddam’s Iraq. Again Americans were treated to discussions of Ansar’s prewar existence in Iraq without the key qualification–with Paul Bremer and Condoleezza Rice on different installments of Fox News Sunday and ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos–with no challenges from the hosts. Dick Cheney took the offensive further with Tim Russert on September 14 of that year, stating that “we also knew Al Qaeda was there, and Ansar al-Islam, up in northeastern Iraq.” Bush, too, complained of “a man who is still running loose, involved with the poisons network, involved with Ansar al-Islam,” adding, “There’s no question that Saddam Hussein had Al Qaeda ties.” No question, but not much evidence, either.
In March 2004 we learned the shocking news from NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski that Bush & Co. never really took Zarqawi all that seriously. On several occasions before the invasion began, Bush chose to ignore opportunities to kill Zarqawi and wipe out his operations. The Administration apparently preferred to leave him in place, as he was serving a useful purpose in their propaganda campaigns.