A top al-Qaeda leader's dead, but what next?

With the news today that the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Iraq's al Qaeda leader, must bring some relief to proponents of the war on terror. As the president said in a statement this morning,

Zarqawi is dead, but the difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues. We can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without him. We can expect the sectarian violence to continue. Yet the ideology of terror has lost one of its most visible and aggressive leaders.

Zarqawi's death is a severe blow to al Qaeda. It's a victory in the global war on terror, and it is an opportunity for Iraq's new government to turn the tide of this struggle.
But as Steve Benen points out at Washington Monthly, "Zarqawi could have been taken out years ago, on several occasions, but Bush decided not to strike."

At the time (June 2002), the Pentagon had solid intelligence that could have taken Zarqawi out at a weapons lab he'd set up in northern Iraq. But since building support for an attack on Iraq the government was more urgent to the White House than waging an actual war on terrorism, no action was taken at the time.

Now, 2,500-plus deaths and countless billions of dollars later, we've achieved the same end.

And as much as the president hopes to stake his party's future and his own legacy on waging a strong war on terror, a poll out released by Zogby International finds that al-Zarqawi's death is "unlikely to improve the President's numbers much." The situation has gotten so bad, it seems, that even catching Osama bin Laden wouldn't help Bush: "52 percent [of respondents] said they would give him no credit because he turned his attention instead to Iraq after the war in Afghanistan."

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