Stretching the truth to link Iraq, al-Qaida

March 04, 2003|By Fawaz A. Gerges

IN THE face of widespread opposition to rushing to war against Iraq, Bush administration officials have underscored the urgency to act by trying to link the Baghdad regime to al-Qaida.

Initially, U.S. officials were reluctant to draw a direct link between Iraq and Osama bin Laden's network for lack of solid evidence. They have now thrown caution to the wind in order to show al-Qaida is "in partnership" with Iraq.

Some CIA analysts reportedly complained that senior administration officials have exaggerated the significance of some intelligence information about Iraq and its potential links to terrorism in order to strengthen their political argument for war.

Although CIA Director George J. Tenet closed ranks with the administration and told the Senate Intelligence Committee that spy agencies had unearthed powerful evidence showing a connection, he acknowledged that Saddam Hussein does not have operational control over a terror cell headed by an Islamist terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in Baghdad.

The administration has not conclusively shown that Mr. Zarqawi is "an associate and collaborator" of bin Laden's. Some CIA analysts also expressed skepticism about whether the information showed a direct Iraqi tie to al-Qaida.

These analysts also disagree about Mr. Hussein's control of a radical Islamist group, Ansar al-Islam, in northeastern Iraq. European intelligence officials, who extensively investigated Mr. Zarqawi, said there is no indication of a direct link between Mr. Zarqawi and Baghdad.

Even if Mr. Zarqawi had found refuge in Iraq, this would not justify the rush to war.

Mr. Tenet also told the Senate intelligence panel, "We see disturbing signs that al-Qaida has established a presence in both Iran and Iraq." Are we to expect then that Washington will make a case for war against Iran, which is part of the "axis of evil" and which U.S. officials suspect of trying to develop nuclear weapons? The administration's case against Iraq not only lacks hard evidence but also consistency.

At times administration officials have stretched the truth to convince skeptics of Iraqi terrorist ties.

In his testimony before the Senate Budget Committee, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell seized on a new audiotape believed to be of bin Laden urging Iraqis and Muslims to resist a U.S. attack as evidence that the al-Qaida leader was "in partnership with Iraq." White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the tape suggests "a strong statement of alliance" between Iraq and al-Qaida.

A close examination of the recorded message does not support the administration's contention. Bin Laden urges Muslims to fight the United States for the sake for God, "not to support the archaic systems that pervade all over the Arab states, including Iraq."

He makes it clear the goal is not to protect the ruling Baath Party or Mr. Hussein but to defend Islam and Muslims. The 16-minute tape is replete with references to the godless nationalists and socialists in Baghdad and elsewhere in the Arab world: "The socialists are infidel wherever they are, whether they are in Baghdad or in Aden."

Bin Laden's call is more a case of that old saw "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" rather than a reflection of an "alliance" or a "partnership" with the godless Iraqi regime. He also tries to capitalize on the widespread opposition to the coming war in Muslim lands by reinventing himself as a defender of the Iraqi people in order to attract young recruits.

A relationship existed between Mr. Hussein and bin Laden, but it is different than the one assumed by the Bush administration. After Mr. Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden (then living in Saudi Arabia) reportedly contacted senior Saudi rulers with a proposal to build an army along the same lines in Afghanistan to expel the "apostate" from Kuwait.

The snub by the royal family and its decision instead to invite Americans into Saudi Arabia sent bin Laden into exile with a global mission of holy war. There is nothing in the history of the two men, past and present, that prepares them to be bedfellows. Mr. Hussein has supported terrorism, but mostly against his fellow Arabs and Muslims, not Americans or Israelis.

U.S. officials must be wary that their nightmare scenario could come true: If Iraq fractures and descends into chaos as a result of a devastating war, it will likely become a hotbed of terrorism like Lebanon and Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively. Bin Laden and his ilk will find a new base to plan and launch terrorist attacks against the "infidel" Muslim regimes and their "evil" patron, the United States.

Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor in Middle Eastern studies and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and is author of the forthcoming The Islamists and the West.

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