The defenders of George W. Bush are having a difficult time with the 9/11 commission report that declared no “collaborative relationship” existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. Before the war, Bush claimed that one reason that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States was that he was “dealing with al Qaeda.” (He was referring to present-day “dealing.”) The 9/11 commission report challenges that key assertion. And the dogs of war have been barking since its release.
After Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell challenged the independent and bipartisan commission’s finding (see here), last night on CNBC, Vice President Cheney maintained the 9/11 commission’s conclusion was “not true.” He referred to the case of Musab Abu al-Zarqawi and claimed that Baghdad had given him sanctuary in 2002. Zarqawi, Cheney said, “was allowed to operate out of Baghdad. He ran the poisons factory in northern Iraq out of Baghdad, which became a safe harbor for Ansar al-Islam [a fundamentalist terrorist group]….There clearly was a relationship there that stretched back over that period of time to at least May of ’02.”
Zarqawi is a murderous thug. He apparently was the fellow who beheaded Nick Berg. He is accused of having killed an American in Jordan and being behind many of the post-invasion terrorism acts in Iraq. Supporters of the war–especially neocons–have pointed to his presumed presence in Baghdad before the war as strong evidence of an al Qaeda-Hussein connection. But the Zarqawi-in-Baghdad episode remain murky. At first, the story was that he had been in Baghdad to have a leg amputated. But a few weeks ago, at an American Enterprise Institute conference, Stephen Hayes, a writer for the Weekly Standard who has written a book on the purported al Qaeda-Iraq connection, told the audience that apparently the reason for Zarqawi’s stay in Baghdad was now believed to be a sinus or nasal problem.
It seems there needs to be more work on this front before the Zarqawi matter is resolved. And even though Zarqawi is routinely described as an al Qaeda associate, the true nature of his relationship to bin Laden is unclear. As I have previously noted, earlier this year, when Zarqawi asked al Qaeda for assistance in fomenting civil war in Iraq, al Qaeda, according to US intelligence officers, rejected his request. Also, the Ansar al-Islam band that Zarqawi worked with was based in northern Iraq, in territory not controlled by Baghdad. (Its leader also has said that this fundamentalist group was opposed to Hussein.) Northern Iraq was a “safe harbor” (as Cheney put it) for Ansar al-Islam in part because it was a US-enforced no-fly zone. Again as I previously noted, NBC reported that in 2002 and 2003, the Pentagon wanted to attack Zarqawi’s camp in northern Iraq, and the White House said no. If Zarqawi was indeed an al Qaeda partner and in league with Hussein, why not?