As the United States builds its case and its battle plan against the nomadic Osama bin Laden, a small but influential core of policy-makers and analysts is pointing toward a second potential suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
The group, which includes Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, bases its suspicions partly on the work of Middle East scholar Laurie Mylroie, whose painstaking investigation of trial evidence in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center concluded that the plot's mastermind, Ramzi Yousef, was an Iraqi intelligence agent.
Such findings, while disputed, have been augmented in recent days by tantalizing clues in the current case - a reported meeting several months ago in Europe between hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent, for example. Proponents of pursuing the Iraqi connection say it is naive to believe that bin Laden's loose network of trainees could have carried out such a sophisticated plan without support from intelligence professionals.
"I basically think it's a strong possibility that has to be put at the top of the list to investigate," Woolsey said.
"It should be pursued without any further delay," said Richard Perle, a former assistant secretary of defense for international security policy. "And if Iraq was indeed involved in 1993, then it is another piece of circumstantial evidence to link them to this attack."
The Iraq connection
The calls for a closer look at Hussein, one of the few world leaders not to offer condolences since Sept. 11, have not gone unheeded.
"There are bits and pieces of information that point in the direction of possible Iraqi involvement, and they are being pursued," said a U.S. official involved with the case. "It is pretty much a certainty that there was a meeting [between Atta and Iraqi intelligence]. Did it have a bearing on these attacks? The bottom line is, we don't know yet."
Even without discovery of a strong link, the recent attack's echoes of the 1993 bombing and other plots have been striking to Mylroie and Woolsey. To them, the four simultaneous hijackings and attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon represent the next logical escalation in the plans of Yousef, the terrorist who directed the 1993 bombing and is now imprisoned.
Yousef's intent in 1993, Mylroie said, was to send one tower toppling into the other, collapsing both in a poisonous haze of cyanide gas that would kill thousands more. The collapse did not occur, and the cyanide burned up in the heat of the explosion, but Yousef wasn't done. He planned another ambitious attack for early 1995 that never materialized - the simultaneous bombing of 11 U.S. commercial airliners while crashing another plane into CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia.
Yousef was not just any operative. Mylroie argues in a detailed chronology of curious events that he was actually an Iraqi intelligence agent operating under a stolen identity - a "legend" created for him during Iraq's military occupation of Kuwait.
But addressing Iraq's possible links to the Sept. 11 attacks will be more complicated than simply pursuing leads, mostly because the Bush administration is trying to build support in the Arab and Muslim world for an anti-terrorism coalition. The populations of many Arab nations sympathize with Iraq, believing that the United States has bullied the country with economic sanctions and periodic airstrikes since the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
Mylroie argues that Iraq has never stopped fighting the war and that Hussein's chief means of striking back has been terrorism. The foundation of that contention is spelled out in her year-old book Study of Revenge.
Mylroie dug through government evidence from the trials in the 1993 bombing case, including much that was never presented in court. She established a trail of phone records and false identities that she says leads directly to Baghdad.
She says that one of the men indicted in the 1993 bombing plot, Abdul Rahman Yasin, who fled after the explosion and is still at large, is believed to be living in Baghdad and is an employee of the Iraqi government. She notes that the date of the attack, Feb. 26, was the second anniversary of the end of the gulf war.
But perhaps her most intriguing information concerns the mastermind Yousef. Known in New York Islamic circles as "Ramzi the Iraqi," Yousef left the United States shortly after the bombing, traveling on a Pakistani passport under the name Abdul Basit Karim, with an address in Kuwait.
Karim was a real person, Mylroie concluded, with a file at Kuwait's Ministry of the Interior. But she said his file had been tampered with, citing a notation from Aug. 26, 1990, which stated that he and his family had left the country for Pakistani Baluchistan, via Iraq and Iran.