Iraq & al-Qaeda: Is There a Link?

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Dozens of al-Qaeda fighters have fled Afghanistan into northern Iraq

As the world's two most nefarious villains, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein ought to have reasons to work together. They share similar interests — hatred of Israel, hostility toward the rulers of Saudi Arabia and, especially, enmity toward their common nemesis, the U.S. Both are suspected of dabbling in chemical and biological agents, and both are judged capable of using them. While al-Qaeda is still seeking weapons of mass destruction, Western intelligence experts think that Iraq already possesses some — in which case hooking up with bin Laden's network might make sense. If Saddam wants to employ his arsenal against the U.S. and its allies without getting caught, why not contract al-Qaeda to do the job for him?

That, at least, is the connect-the-dots theory that Bush Administration hawks and conservative cheerleaders are advancing in their campaign to persuade the President to take his war on terrorism to Baghdad. Assembling evidence of a direct line between Iraq and al-Qaeda — or better yet, proving that Saddam was complicit in the Sept. 11 plot — would give the war planners something they don't have: a compelling do-it-now reason for war.

With allies retreating to the sidelines, Republican wise men counseling restraint and the public growing jittery about the Administration's plans, the hard-liners pumped up fresh hints last week that Saddam and bin Laden have struck an unholy alliance. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared, "There are al-Qaeda in a number of locations in Iraq" receiving shelter from Saddam's regime. "It's very hard to imagine the government is not aware of what's taking place in the country," he said. Another Defense official told the Washington Post that among them, "there are some names you would recognize"--a remarkable claim when the only name most Americans recognize is bin Laden's. Other Pentagon aides leaked word that the Administration had recently considered but decided against sending commandos into Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq to knock out a clandestine chemical-weapons lab allegedly run by Ansar al-Islam, a tiny fundamentalist rebel group whose ranks are reportedly swelling with al-Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan.

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For those looking to promote a U.S. invasion of Iraq, such assorted morsels of intelligence are tantalizing hints of a conspiracy. Many Americans already believe the worst about Saddam. According to a USA Today poll, 86% think Baghdad is giving support to terrorist groups planning to strike America, and more than half think Saddam had a hand in 9/11. Rumsfeld suggested that the Administration is merely waiting to reveal ironclad evidence of the link. "It may make sense to discuss that publicly," he said, "but not today."

So far, suspicions of a Saddam-bin Laden synergy are just that. The same few data points are periodically recycled. Most of the suggestive clues come from unconfirmed charges repeated to journalists and U.S. officials by a few defectors in the hands of the opposition Iraqi National Congress and prisoners held by pro-U.S. Kurdish factions — all of whom have a vested interest in feeding anti-Saddam propaganda. CIA officials, while not ruling anything out, say meaningful ties between Saddam and bin Laden are tenuous at best. Members of Congress who have been well briefed have seen no smoking gun. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, a Foreign Relations Committee member who has warned against a pre-emptive strike, insists, "Saddam is not in league with al-Qaeda. Of course he cheers and encourages them. But I have not seen any intelligence that would lead me to connect Saddam Hussein with al-Qaeda."

So what makes the hard-liners say, Oh yes, there is? A Pentagon official agrees that dozens of al-Qaeda refugees have landed in Iraq, including "some new, mid-level people." But, says a senior intelligence official, "Iraq is not replacing Afghanistan as the sanctuary for al-Qaeda." Many of the newcomers are Kurdish jihadists returning to their native habitat or Afghan Arabs who have slipped into the Kurdish north, which is beyond the control of Baghdad, under the U.S.-enforced no-fly zone established after the Gulf War. Intelligence officials told Time that while Baghdad is aware of their presence, there's no clear evidence that Saddam has made substantive contact with them. "The al-Qaeda people are not official guests of the Iraqi government," says a senior spook. "There's no indication of that."

Anti-Saddam hard-liners have lately seized on the extremist Ansar al-Islam as the organizational nexus that ties al-Qaeda to Baghdad. The group has existed in various forms since the 1990s, when its leader, an Islamic cleric named Najmadin Fatah who goes by the nom de guerre Mullah Krekar, took inspiration from Afghan mujahedin to launch a rebellion against the two feuding secular factions that divvy up Iraqi Kurdistan. Krekar, who carries a Norwegian passport, is a veteran of the mujahedin known for his ruthlessness. "He is not normal," says a Kurdish intelligence official. "He enjoys killing people."

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