Ordinary Americans think Bin Laden and Saddam are the same man...
By Paul Lashmar and Raymond Whitaker
The Independent- 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."