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All's fair in love and war, except when it isn't.

Assassination is not fair under U.S. policy, unless we say it is. That's what the Bush administration seemed to be saying as it rebuked Israel Monday for assassinating a suspected Palestinian plotter of a Tel Aviv disco bombing.

While the State Department renewed its opposition to "targeted killings," the Defense Department continued to target bombs at terrorist Osama bin Laden and Mullah Muhammed Omar, supreme leader of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime.

Contradiction? No way, says the administration.

"It's the same position that we've said over and over again, and that is that we oppose the policy of targeted killings," Phillip Reeker, a State Department spokesman said. "I can't really draw a parallel between the two."

Oh? Was President Bush just kidding when he said he wanted bin Laden "dead or alive"? Hardly. He has waived a 1976 presidential order that bars political assassinations in order to go after bin Laden, "prime suspect" along with his al-Qaida organization in the hijack-bombings of Sept. 11.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld confirmed Monday that the Pentagon also has been targeting the Taliban leader. "It is certainly within the president's power to direct that in our self-defense, we take this battle to the terrorists," Rumsfeld said, "and that means to the leadership and command-and-control capabilities of terrorist networks."

Rumsfeld was responding to a report in the New Yorker that an armed U.S. drone craft reportedly pinpointed Mullah Omar on the first night of the war. By the time the White House gave approval to attack, the mullah reportedly escaped. A few days later the United States bombed Mullah Omar's compound. The strike missed the mullah by 15 minutes, the Taliban say, although American officials say two of his close relatives were killed.

Grotesque as it is to kill any human, the messiness of such bombing episodes is enough to make one envy the comparative tidiness of the Israeli snipers who killed Abdel Rahman Hamad Sunday.

The Israelis said Hamad, 35, a regional leader for the radical Islamic group Hamas, organized the suicide bombing that killed 22 youths in a Tel Aviv disco in June. He was terminated by three bullet wounds on the roof terrace of his home near the Israel-West Bank border.

Human-rights groups say Israel has assassinated more than 30 people during the year-old Palestinian Intifada in defiance of international laws against such killings. American officials repeatedly condemn the assassinations as provocative and counterproductive to the embattled Arab-Israeli peace process. Yet, provocative as they may be, they get the job done, as far as leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are concerned.

There's nothing new about the principle that commanders of a wartime enemy are fair game for killing. "Decapitation" is the military term for the fatal removal of such leaders. Yet, modern terrorists have rewritten the old military adage about removing the head to collapse the body.

To avoid detection, they disperse their "command-and-control" to small cells of perhaps a dozen or fewer members. Members in each cell may have no idea of what other cells are doing. Each can have remarkable independence in deciding what actions to take to implement general orders from the high command.

The ultimate moral question in dealing with such a slippery enemy still looms: Would you kill one in order to save thousands?

Under any circumstances, war is hell. It only seems less grotesque when we talk about killing enemies that are identified by whose side they are on, not by their names. Maybe it is time for our diplomatic language to catch up with harsh realities.

Chicago Tribune

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