Al Qaeda Disconnect
"The connection"--neoconservative shorthand for the purported link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda--is crumbling. Two days after Vice President Cheney asserted that Saddam "had long-established ties with Al Qaeda" and one day after George W. Bush echoed his second-in-command, the independent bipartisan 9/11 commission said that no such bond existed. In a staff statement the commission notes, "There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda...occurred after Bin Ladin had returned to Afghanistan [in 1996], but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship." According to the commission, bin Laden "explored possible cooperation with Iraq" in the early 1990s ("despite his opposition to Hussein's secular regime"), a senior Iraqi intelligence officer met bin Laden in 1994 and bin Laden asked Iraq for space where he could establish training camps and for assistance in obtaining weapons. But, the commission concludes, "Iraq apparently never responded." Regarding possible Iraqi involvement in the 9/11 plot, the commission states, "We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States."
With one paragraph, the commission decimates a primary rationale of Bush's war on Iraq. Before the invasion, Bush argued that Saddam was an immediate threat and war was necessary because (a) Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and (b) Saddam was in cahoots with Al Qaeda and at any moment could slip bin Laden WMDs to use against the United States. As Bush proclaimed in November 2002, Saddam was "a threat because he is dealing with Al Qaeda." But he produced no proof then, and, according to the commission, he has none now.
There were contacts between Al Qaeda and Iraq, but it appears that a relationship never blossomed. The 9/11 report, however, does indicate that there were several nations essential to Al Qaeda's growth and development. Sudan supported it extensively in the early 1990s. Bin Laden's operatives obtained training in explosives, intelligence and security from Iran. Pakistan "facilitated" the "Taliban's ability to provide Bin Ladin a haven." The governments of Pakistan and Iran apparently permitted recruits to transit their nations to bin Laden's training camps (perhaps 20,000 jihadis overall flocked to these facilities). Saudi Arabia was "fertile fundraising ground" for Al Qaeda, which depended on informal money-transfer networks in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. In fact, it seems that Al Qaeda could not have thrived without official or unofficial assistance in many countries. But according to the commission, Iraq was not among them.
Before and after the Iraq invasion, Cheney and others tried to tie Saddam to the 9/11 attacks. Asked this past September if Saddam had anything to do with 9/11, Cheney again referred to the allegation that Mohamed Atta, lead 9/11 plotter, had met with a senior Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague five months before the strikes. Cheney was not reluctant about pushing this charge, although the CIA and FBI had already concluded that it was probably untrue. And in recent weeks neocon hawks like former CIA chief R. James Woolsey have continued to blow on the embers of the Atta-in-Prague story. But in another staff statement, the 9/11 commission declares, "Based on the evidence available-including investigation by Czech and U.S. authorities plus detainee reporting-we do not believe that such a meeting occurred."
But "the connection" persists-at least for Bush. The day before the 9/11 commission released these reports, a reporter asked Bush to provide "the best evidence" for claiming that Saddam was in league with Al Qaeda. "Zarqawi is the best evidence," Bush said. "Remember the e-mail exchange between Al Qaeda and he, himself, about how to disrupt the progress toward freedom" in Iraq? This reference was to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a terrorist operating in Iraq. Earlier this year, the Kurds intercepted a letter (not an e-mail) Zarqawi supposedly sent to Al Qaeda asking for help fomenting civil war in Iraq. According to US officials, Al Qaeda turned down the request. This exchange, if it indicates anything, is evidence of a division between the two terrorist camps. And Zarqawi has been linked in the past not to Saddam's regime but to Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist outfit that declared its opposition to Saddam.
If Zarqawi was the best evidence Bush could offer, he had a paltry case for going to war. Moreover, the 9/11 commission's findings show that Bush and the entire "connection" crowd were--and remain--disconnected from the known facts.