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Total Victory for the Homeland
Iraq and al Qaeda:

There's more evidence of a link than the critics admit.

Monday, September 22, 2003 12:01 a.m. EDT

The Bush Administration was cautious, arguably too cautious, when making its case for the liberation of Iraq. Exhibit A is what it said about the links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Investigators, interrogators and even journalists are turning up evidence of a stronger relationship than the limited ties originally sketched by President Bush and Colin Powell.

That wasn't the big story last week of course. The big news was that Mr. Bush said he has "no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved" in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Predictably, this is being spun as a concession from the Administration, which has been accused of exaggerating the al Qaeda link.

In truth, Mr. Bush has never gone further than what he reiterated last week: "There's no question Saddam Hussein had al Qaeda ties." U.S. intelligence officials, meanwhile, have confirmed that fact once again. Abdul Rahman Yasin, a suspect in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was being harbored in Iraq; documents recently found in Tikrit indicate that Saddam provided Yasin with monthly payments and a home. According to federal authorities, the Ramzi Yousef-led terror cell that carried out the 1993 bombing received funding from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the 2001 attack.

Far from exaggeration, what struck us about the case the President and Colin Powell took to the U.N. last fall and winter was its restraint. It focused mainly on a then-obscure terrorist named Abu Mussab al Zarqawi with no alleged 9/11 link, and a small affiliated terror group called Ansar al Islam operating in the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq. Left out entirely by Mr. Bush were the following stories:

About a month after September 11, reports surfaced that lead hijacker Mohammed Atta had met in Prague with an Iraqi embassy official and intelligence agent named Ahmed al-Ani. Al-Ani was a later expelled from the Czech Republic, in connection with a plot to bomb Radio Free Europe/Radio Free Iraq. Despite repeated attempts to discredit the report of a meeting between the two, Czech officials at the cabinet level have stuck by the story. Al-Ani has been captured in Iraq, and the public deserves to know what he's telling U.S. officials about that meeting.

Also in October 2001, two defectors alleged that a 707 fuselage at Salman Pak, south of Baghdad, was being used to train terrorists in the art of hijacking with simple weapons such as knives. Though no link to al Qaeda was alleged, some of the trainees were said to be non-Iraqi Arabs. The fuselage was clearly visible in satellite photos, and has since been found.

Press reports, which had begun in 1998, resurfaced that former Iraqi intelligence chief and then-ambassador to Turkey Faruk Hijazi had met with bin Laden and associates on multiple occasions. Hijazi is in U.S. custody too, and has reportedly confirmed some of the alleged contacts.

That these stories never figured in the case for war was partly a function of caution on the part of the Administration. It was also partly a result of skepticism from the CIA, which had wrongly judged Saddam and Osama incapable of cooperation on the grounds that the former was secular, the latter fundamentalist.

Some CIA officials are still flogging this theory through leaks to the media. A June 9 article by James Risen in the New York Times claimed captured al Qaeda planner Abu Zubaydah had told CIA interrogators that al Qaeda had not "worked jointly" with Saddam. But what Mr. Risen's source, according to our own, neglected to mention was that the very next sentence of the Zubaydah debrief describes bin Laden's attitude toward Saddam as considering the enemy of his enemy to be his friend.

According to Insight magazine, the CIA's Paul Pillar, National Intelligence Officer for the Near East, used a lecture at Johns Hopkins University earlier this year to criticize the President's war on terror. He said that there was no evidence of Iraqi terror sponsorship since 1993, and no evidence of its involvement in the World Trade Center bombing that year. Curiously, we hear the agency has so far declined to share the file found in Iraq on Yasin (the 1993 New York bombing suspect) with other branches of the government.

One of the more interesting pieces of postwar evidence was uncovered in Baghdad by reporters for the Toronto Star and London's Sunday Telegraph. The February 19, 1998, memo from Iraqi intelligence, in which bin Laden's name was covered over with Liquid Paper, reported planned meetings with an al Qaeda representative visiting Baghdad. Days later al Qaeda issued a fatwa alleging U.S. crimes against Iraq. At about the same time, a U.S. government source tells Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard, Iraq paid bin Laden deputy Ayman Zawahiri $300,000.

As Saddam's very public financial support for Palestinian suicide bombing would suggest, the dictator had no problem working with other fundamentalist groups based on nothing more than their mutual hatred for the United States. Sources tell us the CIA has found 1993 memos from Saddam's government directing Iraqi intelligence to assist Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and to assist Afghan-based holy warriors against the U.S. peacekeeping mission in Somalia. These facts deserve more public disclosure.

Of course, none of this "proves" any Saddam-9/11 link, as Mr. Bush acknowledges. But neither can we be sure there wasn't one. Our point is that U.S. government and intelligence officials ought to be open to the evidence of any links between state sponsors and terrorists. But for many Administration critics, it seems, nothing less than smoking-gun proof that 9/11 was an Iraqi-al Qaeda joint operation will do.

This standard ignores the multiple ways in which states can aid and abet terror--harboring, training, funding, providing false travel documents. What the President's critics seem to want, instead, is to de-link Iraq from the war on terror, and to return to the pre-9/11 practice of targeting terror groups without going after their state sponsors. We think this is short-sighted and dangerous, and that Mr. Bush should begin to call them on it.

 

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal Edictorial Page

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