by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
all the assertions about Iraqi wickedness catalogued in President George W. Bush's State of the Union Address Tuesday night, the most intriguing was his unexpected revival of an alleged connection between Baghdad and al-Qaeda.
It was a theme that administration hawks and their backers in Washington think tanks and the media could not stop talking about in the first six months of the "war on terrorism" following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
Indeed, by November, they were offering breathless accounts of an alleged April 2001 meeting between the leader of the 'skyjackers', Mohammed Atta, and a senior Iraqi intelligence operative in Prague. They also produced a defector who talked about a training camp where non-Iraqi "Arabs" simulated the takeover of a commercial aircraft in a full-sized mock-up.
Last spring, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an opposition group strongly favored by Pentagon hawks and a major source of Iraqi defectors, persuaded ABC-News to interview a self-described long-time mistress of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Citing Hussein's son Uday as her source, she claimed that the Iraqi president and Osama bin Laden held face-to-face meetings in the mid-1990s.
The fact that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) rejected the woman's story was cited by Defense Policy Board chairman and super-hawk Richard Perle as "the latest example of the CIA's unfailing inability to spot intelligence when they see it". Other Pentagon hard-liners were so excited about her account that they prevailed on their boss, Donald Rumsfeld, to create his own intelligence agency to find other gaps in the CIA's analysis.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal ran innumerable editorials scoffing at skeptics of a link and repeatedly suggesting that the anthrax attacks of October 2001 bore the markings of an Iraqi plot. It even provided lavish space for investigative reports that argued that Hussein was behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York and possibly the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.
As with the story about Atta, the mock airliner (which should easily have been confirmed by satellite photography), and Hussein's mistress, most of these allegations disappeared from the administration's public rhetoric last summer, suggesting to most analysts that the stories promoted by Perle, the Journal, and others were either misunderstandings or fabrications or both.
Indeed, the U.S. intelligence community appeared unanimous that evidence linking Baghdad to the Sept. 11 attacks, or any other attacks against western targets since an alleged 1993 assassination plot against former President H.W. Bush in Kuwait, was simply non-existent.
But the early allegations had already had their desired effect. One poll released last October found that two-thirds of the public had come to believe that "Saddam Hussein helped the terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks", despite the lack of evidence to support that view.
The administration began focusing attention on charges that Hussein was accumulating weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that could either be used against the United States and its allies or transferred to al-Qaeda or other terrorists.
It was the latter theory that Bush returned to Tuesday night as he laid out a nightmare scenario.
"Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda," he declared without elaborating.
"Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained," he said. "But chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained. Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known."
Ironically, as New York Times pointed out Wednesday, such a scenario was already considered and dismissed as unlikely by the CIA last October, subject to one caveat. If Hussein believed that Washington was determined to oust him, the agency said, only then would he be inclined to use terror.
"Saddam might decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a WMD attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him," the CIA warned.
In any event, now that Bush has resurrected a connection, Secretary of State Colin Powell will have the burden of explaining it next week when he tries to persuade the UN Security Council that Iraq has been hiding missiles and WMD from arms inspectors.
What will he say about the Iraq-al-Qaeda connection after so many lurid stories have been debunked?
The hawks' case, which has already been briefed at length to friendly reporters and commentators, revolves around the alleged travels of Abu Musab Zarqawi, said to be a top lieutenant of bin Laden in Afghanistan, who has dabbled in biological and chemical warfare.
Zarqawi is believed to have been badly injured during the bombing in Afghanistan from whence he travelled to Iran, and then on to Baghdad where, he may have had his leg amputated. It is assumed that Iraqi intelligence at least knew of his presence, if it did not actually provide him with protection.
From there, various stories have Zarqawi and his new prosthesis visiting an Islamist militia in northern Kurdistan under the U.S.- and British-patrolled "no-fly zone" called Asbat al-Ansar, which the hawks have long claimed is a joint al-Qaeda-Iraqi operation that has experimented with rudimentary chemical weapons, including -- according to Times columnist William Safire -- a cyanide cream that has since been smuggled under Zarqawi's supervision to Turkey.
Zarqawi, who, during his peregrinations, is also alleged to have ordered the murder of a U.S. foreign-aid official in Jordan late last year, has reportedly been seen in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia and at a "terrorist summit" in southern Lebanon.
The hawks also claim that the peripatetic Palestinian was behind the recently foiled plot by Algerian immigrants to poison food at a British military base with ricin, "a poison that can be delivered in warheads and one well known to Iraqi chemists", according to Safire, a major proponent of a link since immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks.
To the hawks, it is simply a matter of "connecting the dots", but, as noted by Newsweek, one of the problems is that intelligence agencies still cannot confirm that Zarqawi was ever actually in Baghdad, let alone with the government's knowledge and approval. Without that dot, this new evidence may go the way of the Prague meeting, the mistress, and the mock airliner.
Powell has his work cut out.
January 29, 2003 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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