The Bush administration had actionable intelligence in June of that year that Zarqawi was running a terror camp inside Iraq. This is not to say Saddam was harboring him —the CIA disproved that theory; Zarqawi, along with other jihadists on the run from Afghanistan, had established a foothold in the lawless northern No Fly Zone, near the border with Iran.
By establishing his doctrine of preemption, president Bush vowed to strike terrorists anywhere in the world. In this case the administration had rock-solid intel on Zarqawi's location and ongoing terror schemes and plans to take him out. But instead of sending Tomahawks to take out what retired Gen. John M. Keane, the Army's vice chief of staff at the time, told the Wall Street Journal was "one of the best targets we ever had" [subscription required] the Bush administration wavered. By the time U.S. forces finally bombed the camp as part of Shock and Awe in 2003, Zarqawi was gone.
According to reporting by NBC News back in March 2004, the question of taking out Zarqawi was instead "debated to death" in the White House's National Security Council. Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the NSC's director for counter terrorism at that time, told the Journal in October 2004 that the camp was "definitely a stronghold, and we knew that certain individuals were there —including Zarqawi." She asked: "Why didn't we get that S.O.B. when we could?"
The reason, according to military sources cited by NBC News, was that "the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam." That is to say, the link —any link —between the nation of Iraq and terrorism (however tenuous) bolstered the case for invasion. In Colin Powell's since-discredited speech before the U.N., the Secretary of State pointed to Zarqawi as proof of a "sinister nexus" between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
So it seems that Zarqawi has been a useful nuisance both coming and going. He has been the administration's prime resource to connect Iraq —both pre- and post-invasion —to the larger War on Terror.
Attention wingnuts: I'm not saying Zarqawi is a myth. He's killed hundreds —including Nick Berg —in ways that offend our common humanity. If a predator aircraft took him out, I'd do the dance of joy; he clearly should have been eliminated when we had the chance.
But the reason that he's alive today, as NBC reported in 2004, and this week's WaPo story makes plainly clear again, is that the Bush administration wanted to inflate this two-bit terrorist into the face of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Talk about giving aid and comfort to the enemy.