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Iraq & al-Qaeda Is there a link?

The go-to-war camp would love to prove that Saddam Hussein is doing business with Osama bin Laden. They talk up suspicions, but no one's got proof

Iraq & al-Qaeda Is there a link?

By Romesh Ratnesar
Reported by Mark Thompson, Karen Tumulty and Douglas Waller/Washington and Andrew Purvis/Suleimaniya

As the world's two most nefarious villains, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein ought to have reasons to work together. They share similar interests -- hatred of Israel, hostility toward the rulers of Saudi Arabia and, especially, enmity toward their common nemesis, the U.S. Both are suspected of dabbling in chemical and biological agents, and both are judged capable of using them. While al-Qaeda is still seeking weapons of mass destruction, Western intelligence experts think that Iraq already possesses some--in which case hooking up with bin Laden's network might make sense. If Saddam wants to employ his arsenal against the U.S. and its allies without getting caught, why not contract al-Qaeda to do the job for him?

That, at least, is the connect-the-dots theory that Bush Administration hawks and conservative cheerleaders are advancing in their campaign to persuade the President to take his war on terrorism to Baghdad. Assembling evidence of a direct line between Iraq and al-Qaeda--or better yet, proving that Saddam was complicit in the Sept. 11 plot--would give the war planners something they don't have: a compelling do-it-now reason for war.


With allies retreating to the sidelines, Republican wise men counseling restraint and the public growing jittery about the Administration's plans, the hard-liners pumped up fresh hints last week that Saddam and bin Laden have struck an unholy alliance. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared, "There are al-Qaeda in a number of locations in Iraq" receiving shelter from Saddam's regime. "It's very hard to imagine the government is not aware of what's taking place in the country," he said. Another Defense official told the Washington Post that among them, "there are some names you would recognize"--a remarkable claim when the only name most Americans recognize is bin Laden's. Other Pentagon aides leaked word that the Administration had recently considered but decided against sending commandos into Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq to knock out a clandestine chemical-weapons lab allegedly run by Ansar al-Islam, a tiny fundamentalist rebel group whose ranks are reportedly swelling with al-Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan.

For those looking to promote a U.S. invasion of Iraq, such assorted morsels of intelligence are tantalizing hints of a conspiracy. Many Americans already believe the worst about Saddam. According to a USA Today poll, 86% think Baghdad is giving support to terrorist groups planning to strike America, and more than half think Saddam had a hand in 9/11. Rumsfeld suggested that the Administration is merely waiting to reveal ironclad evidence of the link. "It may make sense to discuss that publicly," he said, "but not today."

So far, suspicions of a Saddam-bin Laden synergy are just that. The same few data points are periodically recycled. Most of the suggestive clues come from unconfirmed charges repeated to journalists and U.S. officials by a few defectors in the hands of the opposition Iraqi National Congress and prisoners held by pro-U.S. Kurdish factions--all of whom have a vested interest in feeding anti-Saddam propaganda. CIA officials, while not ruling anything out, say meaningful ties between Saddam and bin Laden are tenuous at best. Members of Congress who have been well briefed have seen no smoking gun. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, a Foreign Relations Committee member who has warned against a pre-emptive strike, insists, "Saddam is not in league with al-Qaeda. Of course he cheers and encourages them. But I have not seen any intelligence that would lead me to connect Saddam Hussein with al-Qaeda."

So what makes the hard-liners say, Oh yes, there is? A Pentagon official agrees that dozens of al-Qaeda refugees have landed in Iraq, including "some new, mid-level people." But, says a senior intelligence official, "Iraq is not replacing Afghanistan as the sanctuary for al-Qaeda." Many of the newcomers are Kurdish jihadists returning to their native habitat or Afghan Arabs who have slipped into the Kurdish north, which is beyond the control of Baghdad, under the U.S.-enforced no-fly zone established after the Gulf War. Intelligence officials told Time that while Baghdad is aware of their presence, there's no clear evidence that Saddam has made substantive contact with them. "The al-Qaeda people are not official guests of the Iraqi government," says a senior spook. "There's no indication of that."

Anti-Saddam hard-liners have lately seized on the extremist Ansar al-Islam as the organizational nexus that ties al-Qaeda to Baghdad. The group has existed in various forms since the 1990s, when its leader, an Islamic cleric named Najmadin Fatah who goes by the nom de guerre Mullah Krekar, took inspiration from Afghan mujahedin to launch a rebellion against the two feuding secular factions that divvy up Iraqi Kurdistan. Krekar, who carries a Norwegian passport, is a veteran of the mujahedin known for his ruthlessness. "He is not normal," says a Kurdish intelligence official. "He enjoys killing people."

Last year, the Islamists morphed into their current incarnation as the "Supporters of Islam," which almost certainly includes members who trained in terrorism at al-Qaeda's Afghan camps. Bin Laden probably recruited men from among Ansar disciples. Today Ansar may well include some al-Qaeda fighters looking for a new nest. Kurdish officials say the group has swollen to around 700, but U.S. intelligence puts the number at a little over 100.

The telling allegation, made again last week by New York Times columnist William Safire, is that Saddam secretly runs Ansar. According to Safire's unsourced pronouncement, a Saddam intelligence operative and a senior bin Laden agent helped coordinate an assault by Ansar militants to assassinate the secular, pro-American Kurdish leadership last year. Both, he claimed, were captured when Kurdish forces put down the revolt. Safire also fingered Saddam's agents as the men behind Ansar's crude attempts to make poison weapons that drew Pentagon attention.

Yet while Ansar may share Saddam's desire to destroy the Kurdish leadership--in April, Ansar unsuccessfully attempted to kill one faction's prime minister when Assistant Secretary of State Ryan Crocker was visiting the area--the Iraqi dictator does not appear to have direct control over the Kurdish militants. Both Saddam and al-Qaeda may find Ansar's activities useful, but there's no evidence that the group serves as a link between them.

The hawks point to another piece of circumstantial evidence. Since last fall the U.S. has tried to confirm a Czech intelligence report that in April 2001, 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague. Both the CIA and FBI have disputed the report. Their research places Atta in Florida two days before the purported meeting, and they could not uncover any travel or financial records to prove Atta had made a quick flight to Prague. But early this month several Pentagon officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, met with the FBI's assistant director for counterterrorism, Pat D'Amuro, to quiz the FBI again about the Czech report. Officials from both agencies who attended the meeting deny that Wolfowitz pressured the briefers to confirm that the Prague rendezvous took place. But the FBI says the Pentagon team tried, with success, to persuade the bureau to concede that reports of the meeting are at least possible.

Other points of suspicion have come from Iraqi defectors. A former army officer now under the protection of the anti-Saddam Iraqi National Congress has repeated to numerous U.S. officials and reporters his tale of a camp at Salman Pak, just outside Baghdad, run by the Iraqi secret police as a training school for potential terrorists from across the Arab world. Among other things, he said, the camp uses the fuselage of a Boeing 707 to practice hijackings. Early this year Mohamed Mansour Shahab, a mercenary now in Kurdish custody who says he worked for Saddam's secret police, told interviewers that in 2000 the regime set aside $16 million for nine terrorist operations, including a scuttled suicide attack Shahab was supposed to organize against a U.S. Navy ship in the Persian Gulf.

Another defector, from Iraq's intelligence service, told a Vanity Fair reporter that Saddam's son Uday oversees a vicious 1,200-man commando force called al-Qarea, trained to carry out terrorist attacks against American targets. Washington counterterrorism experts are skeptical about whether Iraq really boasts such a cadre. A U.S. official who studies Iraq says al-Qarea is probably a ragtag collection of men Uday dressed up as militants to impress his father.

Other items the hard-liners like to list seem even longer on speculation. They point to a visit bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri supposedly made to Saddam in 1992. But Zawahiri was then the head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and had not yet hooked up with al-Qaeda. Nor has the CIA been able to verify a Saddam-Zawahiri meeting, especially at a time when Baghdad was trying to improve relations with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Zawahiri's prime target.

Shahab, the imprisoned mercenary, claimed that in 1999 Iraqi officials paid him to smuggle several dozen liquid-filled refrigerator canisters into Afghanistan for the Taliban. Did they contain chemical agents or bio germs? Shahab does not know, and U.S. intelligence has been unable to confirm the report. Officials question whether the idea makes sense. Documents recovered in Afghanistan show al-Qaeda had its own blueprints for cooking up chemical weapons.

The hard-liners seem to think that by repeating this kind of unsubstantiated speculation, they can force Bush to stick to his vow to take on Saddam--even though, as White House aides insisted last week, he still does not have a plan for doing so. "Some people are, by design, trying to put him into a corner on this," says an official who works on Iraq policy. "They're arguing that if we don't attack, Saddam will win yet again because of the harm that will do to American credibility."

It's only prudent for U.S. intelligence to track any hint that Saddam may try to enlist a terrorist network in his battle against America. But the hawks are doing damage to their own cause by trumpeting unproved allegations of Saddam's links to bin Laden that could undermine more substantial reasons for taking down a dangerous dictator. The al-Qaeda connection looks too tenuous now to justify war with Iraq. If the President is truly concerned about preserving American credibility, he needs to do a more persuasive job explaining why another war against Iraq is worth the effort.




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