Monday, September 25, 2006

No Ties Between Saddam and Al-Qaeda?

It's an odd claim
to state that "Saddam Hussein "was resistant to cooperating with al Qaeda or any other Islamist groups", muses Stephen F. Hayes (danke zu Eric R. Staal).
Saddam Hussein's regime has a long and well-documented history of cooperating with Islamists, including al Qaeda and its affiliates.

As early as 1982, the Iraqi regime was openly supporting, training, and funding the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization opposed to the secular regime of Hafez Assad. For years, Saddam Hussein cultivated warm relations with Hassan al-Turabi, the Islamist who was the de facto leader of the Sudanese terrorist state, and a man Bill Clinton described as "a buddy of [Osama] bin Laden's."

Throughout the 1990s, the Iraqi regime hosted Popular Islamic Conferences in Baghdad, gatherings modeled after conferences Turabi hosted in Khartoum. Mark Fineman, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, attended one of the conferences and filed a story about his experience on January 26, 1993. "There are delegates from the most committed Islamic organizations on Earth," he wrote. "Afghan mujahedeen (holy warriors), Palestinian militants, Sudanese fundamentalists, the Islamic Brotherhood and Pakistan's Party of Islam." Newsweek's Christopher Dickey attended the same conference and wrote about it in 2002. "Islamic radicals from all over the Middle East, Africa, and Asia converged on Baghdad," he wrote, "to show their solidarity with Iraq in the face of American aggression. . . . Every time I hear diplomats and politicians, whether in Washington or the capitals of Europe, declare that Saddam Hussein is a 'secular Baathist ideologue' who has nothing to do with Islamists or terrorist calls to jihad, I think of that afternoon and I wonder what they're talking about. If that was not a fledgling Qaeda itself at the Rashid convention, it sure was Saddam's version of it."

Iraqi leaders frequently touted their Islamist credentials. "We are blessed in this country for having the Islamic holy warrior Saddam Hussein as a leader, who is guiding the country in a religious holy war against the infidels and nonbelievers," said Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, one of Saddam's top deputies, in an address to the terrorist confab. On August 27, 1998, 20 days after al Qaeda attacked the U.S. embassies in Africa, Babel, the government newspaper run by Saddam's son Uday Hussein, published an editorial proclaiming Osama bin Laden "an Arab and Islamic hero."

None of this is a secret, as the press coverage attests. But the authors of the Senate report seem determined to write it out of the history. On what basis do the authors claim that Saddam Hussein was "resistant" to cooperation with Islamists? The finding is sourced to "postwar detainee debriefs--including debriefs of Saddam Hussein and Tariq Aziz." Well then, that settles it.

But why take Saddam's word for it? This is, after all, the same man who claims that he is the president of Iraq. Even assuming the man isn't a pathological liar, isn't it the case that detainees interrogated by a government fighting a global war on terror might have an incentive to understate their complicity in global terror?

… According to the [Senate] report, Saddam Hussein was asked whether he might cooperate with al Qaeda because "the enemy of the enemy is my friend." The report dutifully--and uncritically--offers his response. "Saddam answered that the United States was not Iraq's enemy. He claimed that Iraq only opposed U.S. policies."

Really? That's hard to reconcile with these instructions from Saddam Hussein in a 1993 address. "Attack them, our beloved people," Saddam ordered in a speech broadcast on Iraqi television. "You are the glory of our nation. Attack them." Or this editorial: "American and British interests, embassies, and naval ships in the Arab region should be the targets of military operations and commando attacks by Arab political forces," argued Uday Hussein's newspaper Babel on November 15, 1997.

A statement from Saddam's Baath party on November 8, 1998 [again during the Clinton era], called for "the highest levels of jihad" against American interests. "The escalation of the confrontation and the disclosure of its dimensions and the aggressive intentions now require an organized, planned, influential and conclusive enthusiasm against U.S. interests."

And Saddam Hussein celebrated the attacks on September 11, 2001. "The American cowboys are reaping the fruit of their crimes against humanity," he declared just days after the worst terrorist attack on American soil.

These are just four examples out of dozens. Despite his claims to the contrary, Saddam Hussein regarded the United States as an enemy. And for years he demonstrated his willingness to work with Islamists by, among other things, working with Islamists. The Senate report fails to provide any of this contextual balance to the denials of detained Iraqi officials. It is a revealing omission that raises serious doubts about the quality of the reporting throughout the 52 pages examining Iraq's links to al Qaeda.

There is much to quarrel with in the report. But it is worth spending a moment to consider the vast amount of information that was left out of the committee's treatment of Iraq's links to al Qaeda. A few examples [follow.]

…There is no mention of the Clinton administration's 1998 indictment of Osama bin Laden, which noted that al Qaeda had "reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al Qaeda would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al Qaeda would work cooperatively with the Government of Iraq." The language was dropped from a superseding indictment of bin Laden, after the August 7, 1998, East Africa embassy bombings allowed prosecutors to narrow their charges. Patrick Fitzgerald, a U.S. attorney involved in preparing the original indictment (who would later gain national prominence in the CIA leak case), testified before the 9/11 Commission. He told the panel that the claim in the indictment came from Jamal al Fadl, who told prosecutors that a senior Iraqi member of al Qaeda, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, had worked out the agreement between Iraq and al Qaeda. According to Fitzgerald's testimony, Salim "tried to reach a sort of agreement where they wouldn't work against each other--sort of the enemy of my enemy is my friend--and that there were indications that within Sudan when al Qaeda was there, which al Qaeda left in the summer of '96, or the spring of '96, there were efforts to work on jointly acquiring weapons."

There is no mention of the Clinton administration's many public claims that Iraq was working with al Qaeda on chemical weapons development in Sudan. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, the passage in the indictment of bin Laden "led [Richard] Clarke, who for years had read intelligence reports on Iraqi-Sudanese cooperation on chemical weapons, to speculate to [National Security Adviser Sandy] Berger that a large Iraqi presence at chemical facilities in Khartoum was 'probably a direct result of the Iraq-al Qaeda agreement.' Clarke added that VX precursor traces found near al Shifa were the 'exact formula used by Iraq.'"

…On it goes. In addition, there are numerous omissions that could shed light on Iraq's involvement in trans regional terrorism more broadly.

There is no mention of Iraqi documents first reported in a monograph published by the Joint Forces Command after 18 months' study of prewar Iraq. According to their report, called The Iraqi Perspectives Project:

Beginning in 1994, the Fedayeen Saddam opened its own paramilitary training camps for volunteers, graduating more than 7,200 "good men racing full with courage and enthusiasm" in the first year. Beginning in 1998, these camps began hosting "Arab volunteers from Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, 'the Gulf,' and Syria." It is not clear from available evidence where all of these non-Iraqi volunteers who were "sacrificing for the cause" went to ply their newfound skills. Before the summer of 2002, most volunteers went home upon the completion of training. But these camps were humming with frenzied activity in the months immediately prior to the war. As late as January 2003, the volunteers participated in a special training event called the "Heroes Attack." This training event was designed in part to prepare regional Fedayeen Saddam commands to "obstruct the enemy from achieving his goal and to support keeping peace and stability in the province."

There is no mention of Iraqi documents discussing "Blessed July," a planned wave of terrorist attacks that was also first reported in The Iraqi Perspectives Project study.

…Intelligence officials familiar with the DOCEX project say that the numbers in the report are inflated in an effort to impress congressional overseers. If just the cover sheet on a 200-page document has been read once and summarized, for example, all 200 pages are counted toward the total number of documents that have been exploited "to some extent." A translator who read only the cover sheet on the eight-page fax from Manila to Baghdad would have missed the revelation that Iraq had been providing money and arms to Abu Sayyaf. But for the purposes of the Senate report, that important document would have made the list of documents "translated and summarized to some extent." The real number of fully exploited documents, according to those familiar with the DOCEX project, remains in the single digits. The report's oracular assurances--that further exploitation is "unlikely" to change our understanding of Iraqi links to al Qaeda--is both deeply revealing and deeply troubling.

[The] Shakir case … stands as yet another example of the Senate report's selective use of evidence and the alacrity with which its authors sought to reject alleged Iraqi ties to al Qaeda.

…Muhammad al Masari, a known al Qaeda mouthpiece, told the editor of the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Abdel Bari Atwan, that Saddam reached out to al Qaeda--and Zarqawi--after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and provided funding for al Qaeda operatives to relocate to Iraq. "According to Masari, Saddam saw that Islam would be key to a cohesive resistance in the event of invasion. Iraqi army commanders were ordered to become practicing Muslims and to adopt the language and spirit of the jihadis. On arrival in Iraq, Al-Qaeda operatives were put in touch with these commanders, who later facilitated the distribution of arms and money from Saddam's caches."

Finally, when Zarqawi returned to Iraq after the war, he teamed up almost immediately with a cadre of former Iraqi Intelligence officials to conduct attacks on U.S. troops and softer targets in Iraq.

…The mainstream press has treated the Senate report as the definitive word on Iraqi links to al Qaeda. It is not. It is worth remembering that while critics of the Bush administration have long since decided that there was no relationship at all between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda, there are many observers who continue to hold a different view. If these individuals disagree on the extent of the relationship and its meaning, they agree that there was one.

"There was no question in our minds that there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda," said 9/11 Commission co-chairman Thomas Kean.

"Saddam Hussein's regime welcomed them with open arms and young al Qaeda members entered Iraq in large numbers, setting up an organization to confront the occupation," said Hudayfa Azzam, the son of bin Laden's longtime mentor Abdullah Azzam.

"I believe very strongly that Saddam had relations with al Qaeda," said former Iraqi prime minister and longtime CIA asset Ayad Allawi. "And these relations started in Sudan. We know Saddam had relationships with a lot of terrorists and international terrorism."

"What our report said really supports what the administration, in its straight presentations, has said," noted 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman. "There were numerous contacts; there's evidence of collaboration on weapons. And we found earlier, we reported earlier, that there was VX gas that was clearly from Iraq in the Sudan site that President Clinton hit. And we have significant evidence that there were contacts over the years and cooperation, although nothing that would be operational."

And late last week, following the release of the Senate report, Barham Salih, deputy prime minister of Iraq, had this to say: "The alliance between the Baathists and jihadists which sustains al Qaeda in Iraq is not new, contrary to what you may have been told." Salih continued: "I know this at first hand. Some of my friends were murdered by jihadists, by al Qaeda-affiliated operatives who had been sheltered and assisted by Saddam's regime."

Some day there will be an authoritative and richly detailed history of the nature of the relationship between the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda and other Islamist terror groups. This latest product of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is unlikely to merit even a footnote in this history.

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