By Paul Lashmar and Raymond WhitakerIndependent
February 2, 2003
When did the "war against terror" become a campaign against Saddam Hussein rather than Osama bin Laden? Less than a month after the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, some hawkish members of the US administration were stressing a connection with Iraq, but the shift did not become clear until George Bush's State of the Union address in January last year, when the "axis of evil" was unveiled.
Suddenly Baghdad was in the frame, and al-Qa'ida receded into the background. For several months the name of Bin Laden has barely passed President Bush's lips; although al-Qa'ida was name-checked in the latest State of the Union speech a few days ago, its leader was not mentioned. Instead Washington has acted as though the link between Iraq and terrorism were self-evident.
The rest of the world has been more sceptical, especially since the administration's attempts to offer proof of the connection have been successively demolished, at least once by the CIA. If the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, is to use Iraq's terrorist leanings as a cause of war when he speaks to the UN Security Council on Wednesday, he will have to offer far more convincing evidence than has been produced up to now.
Soon after "9/11", American intelligence officials were telling journalists, with a striking level of detail, that one of Iraq's top intelligence officers had met Mohamed Atta, leader of the 19-man suicide squad. Abu Amin, one of Iraq's most highly decorated intelligence officers, was said to have met Atta in Prague some five months before the attacks on New York and Washington. Czech intelligence officers who saw the encounter said that they had no idea who the man greeting Saddam's envoy was, but after 9/11, US intelligence was identifying him as Atta.
Following the wave of anthrax attacks that terrorised the US and brought the capital to a virtual standstill, the same US officials were briefing again. This time they suggested that a flask of anthrax spores had been given to Atta during another meeting in Prague, apparently confirming that Iraq was assisting his group of al-Qa'ida terrorists.
The only problem is that both these stories were untrue. The allegation of the Prague meetings first made by Czech intelligence was extensively investigated by the Czech government. President Vaclav Havel informed the White House that the allegation could not be substantiated. The CIA's director, George Tenet, told Congress last October that the CIA could find no supporting evidence.
As for the anthrax attacks, the widely held view in the US now is that they were the work of a deranged American defence scientist and that the anthrax spores were stolen from America's own stocks.
But the administration has continued to link Saddam Hussein, a man Bin Laden has called "an apostate, an infidel and a traitor to Islam", with al-Qa'ida. In his State of the Union address last week, President Bush said he had new evidence of the link: "Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications and statements by people now in custody, reveal that Saddam aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qa'ida." Nothing was produced to support the assertion.
Magnus Ransthorp, a terrorism expert at St Andrews University, said justifying the war on Iraq by accusing President Saddam of both concealing weapons of mass destruction and supporting Bin Laden "is like mixing apples and oranges". But the strategy appears to have been very successful domestically. As one observer commented, "ordinary Americans ... repeat these claims, and sometimes seem to think Bin Laden and Saddam are the same man".
Britain weighed in last week, when the BBC was shown intelligence data indicating that al-Qa'ida had built a small "dirty bomb" in western Afghanistan while the Taliban regime was still in power. But there was no evidence of any Iraqi involvement, and the report served as a reminder that while the world's attention is focused on Iraq, the war against terrorism in Afghanistan is far from over.
In the past few days US and Afghan forces have been engaged in the heaviest fighting in nearly a year against a group allied to the Taliban and al-Qa'ida, and a mine demolished a bridge, killing at least 15 people aboard a minibus crossing at the time.
Dr Ransthorp believed the US would seek to establish a link between Iraq and al-Qa'ida through Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. A Jordanian leader of al-Qa'ida, he was badly wounded in the leg in the allied bombing of Afghanistan. In late 2001, say US intelligence sources, he sought treatment in Iran but was deported and fled to Baghdad, where his leg was amputated. Afterwards Zarqawi is said to have gone to northern Iraq and joined up with Ansar al-Islam, a militant Islamist group of 700 Kurds who control a string of villages in the Kurdish self-rule area.
Ansar al-Islam is the second string to America's evidence. The group is said to boast some 120 al-Qa'ida refugees who are helping fight a turf war with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Some US sources say it is run by Saddam's intelligence agency. The Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has accused it of being involved with the Algerian-linked ricin poison plot uncovered in north London.
But American officials had the opportunity to make a case against its leader, Mullah Krekar, when he was detained in the Netherlands last September. They did not do so and he now lives as a refugee in Norway. On Friday he denied links between Ansar al-Islam and Saddam, saying: "Not in the past, not now and not in the future. I am a Kurdish man, Saddam is our enemy." He also denied any link with the ricin plot.
US officials also say that al-Qa'ida members held at Guantanamo Bay, Diego Garcia and elsewhere have told their interrogators that Baghdad was attempting to train al-Qa'ida in the use of chemical weapons, but there is no independent verification of this. It has also been pointed out that al-Qa'ida may be seeking to provoke a US war with Iraq.
"There are other countries more significant in their links with al-Qa'ida than Iraq," said Dr Ransthorp. "Look at Iran, which has allowed the transit of al-Qa'ida members."
Even members of the intelligence community remain sceptical. "What we have is a few strands of highly circumstantial evidence, and to justify an attack on Iraq it is being presented as a cast-iron case," said one insider. "That really is not good enough."
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