Jewish World Review June 21, 2004 / 2 Tamuz, 5764

Robert Robb

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Al-Qaida-Iraq interaction strengthens case for war | The report by the 9/11 commission staff on al-Qaida, released Wednesday, has been widely reported and spun as rebuking the Bush administration's case for war with Iraq.

Fairly considered, that's not true.

In the first place, the Iraq part of the report was just one paragraph in a 12-page document. This was not a thorough examination of the relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida.

The report has been frequently characterized as finding that there was no "link" between Iraq and al-Qaida.

What the report actually says is that Osama bin Laden sought space to set up training camps and help in gaining weapons from Saddam Hussein and that there are reports of contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida.

It then goes on to say that the contacts "do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship," and that the staff has "no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaida cooperated on attacks against the United States."

The Bush case for war was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to give them to terrorists who would use them against the United States.

While no caches of biological or chemical weapons have been found in Iraq, the evidence is that Saddam was trying to maintain a standby capability to produce them.

So, Saddam wanted to produce WMD and, according to the staff report, bin Laden sought Saddam's assistance with weapons.

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That's not much of a rebuke of Bush's case for war, properly understood.

There is evidence of even greater and more disturbing interaction between Saddam and al-Qaida. The reporting of Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard has been indispensable in bringing forth a fuller picture of the relationship for public examination.

The commission staff said that bin Laden sought Saddam's help in 1994. But according to Hayes' exhaustive and seemingly highly sourced reporting, the interaction wasn't a point in time but an ongoing process of mutual exploration.

Al-Qaida was interested in Iraqi assistance in bomb-making and biological and chemical weapons. And Iraq was exploring the extent to which al-Qaida could be leveraged to achieve its goals, such as stirring up Muslim opposition to U.N. sanctions.

Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leading terrorist in Iraq today, set up operations in the country while Saddam was still in power. In his presentation to the United Nations, Colin Powell described Zarqawi as "an associate and collaborator" of bin Laden. Recently, observers have been depicting him as more of an independent operator than that.

Regardless, Zarqawi, who initially set up shop presumably with Saddam's approval, has asked for al-Qaida's help in disrupting postwar Iraq.

With respect to the 9/11 attacks, the most cautious position is that asserted by the staff report: no evidence of direct Iraqi involvement. Even President Bush has said as much.

However, there is at least some suspicion that an Iraqi operative attended a 2000 al-Qaida planning meeting in Malaysia, at which the 9/11 attacks are thought to have been discussed. And that he served as an escort to two future 9/11 hijackers who certainly attended.

In response to the spin from the report, President Bush reasserted that there was a "relationship" between Saddam and al-Qaida.

Based upon publicly available evidence, that's too strong a conclusion, although a more modest one than the Clinton administration made in seeking bin Laden's indictment in 1998. According to that indictment, there was "an understanding" between al-Qaida and Iraq: no attacks in exchange for assistance in weapons development.

The more precise way to put it is that there was, at a minimum, a troubling degree of interaction between al-Qaida and Saddam's Iraq.

What has really been blown apart isn't Bush's case for war, but one of the main arguments against it: that bin Laden wouldn't seek or accept Saddam's help because of their theological and political differences. Even the 9/11 commission staff reports that bin Laden did, indeed, seek such assistance.

I continue to believe that the war was an unwise deepening of American involvement in Middle Eastern geopolitics, when extraction from them is the surer path to improved security.

But what has been learned postwar about the interaction between Saddam and al-Qaida, fairly considered, actually makes the administration's case for war stronger, not weaker.

JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.


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