27 July 2003

Ghost of al-Qaeda left out of story
The claims that the Washington administration made for an al-Qaeda/Saddam link were based on three broad elements. The first was that a Jordanian 'bin Laden associate' called Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had sheltered in Baghdad after fleeing the American onslaught in Afghanistan. Al-Zarqawi was indeed in Iraq but was not, as a thick sheaf of reports of interrogations of his close associates open on my desk make clear, an ally of bin Laden. His group, al-Tauheed, was actually set up in competition to that of the Saudi. To lump them together is either a wilful misrepresentation or reveals profound ignorance about the nature of modern Islamic militancy. Either way, there's no link there. Nor has any evidence for one surfaced since the end of the war.

The second claim linked al-Qaeda and Saddam through the militant group called Ansar-ul-Islam that was based in the north of Iraq. Ansar certainly had ties to bin Laden - its followers received money and training from the Saudi in 2001 and provided a safe haven for at least 100 of his fighters in 2002 - but they had no connection to Baghdad. In fact they were based in the part of Iraq outside Baghdad's control.

The third claim was that al-Qaeda and Saddam had 'had contacts', since 1998 if not earlier. Bin Laden did send representatives to talk to an emissary of the Iraqi leader who arrived in Afghanistan in the autumn of that year. But he rejected the overtures of the munafiq (faithless hypocrite) dictator. Once more nothing has surfaced, other than documents showing further attempts by Baghdad to woo al-Qaeda, that proves any 'alliance'.

It was further claimed that an Iraqi diplomat had met Mohammed Atta, the best known of the hijackers, in Prague before the attacks. That official is now in American custody. Again, there has been no word yet to substantiate the previous claim.

Instead the congressional report fingers Saudi Arabia, the ruling family of which has hitherto been a key US ally. The report indicates that some officials in Riyadh are likely to have colluded with the hijackers, three quarters of whom were Saudi, at certain stages. The report also alleges, not unfairly, that the massive support for, and export of, radical conservative strands of Islam by the Saudi establishment was - and is - a key element in creating the conditions for Islamic terrorism.

I am still collating each mention of 'Iraq' or 'Saddam' in the document. If Saddam was associated with the 11 September attack you would surely expect some discussion of that, and it's just not there. It's not just missing from the joint inquiry's conclusions, it appears to be missing from what the Bush administration gave the committee as well.

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