February 7, 2003

Colin Powell’s Al Qaeda-Iraq Connection Tenous at Best

By: William O. Beeman
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE

The Bush administration wants above all to prove a connection between the al Qaeda terrorist network and Saddam Hussein. Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to do just that in his argument before the United Nations on Feb. 5. Despite his claim that his words were based on “solid sources,” Powell’s argument was specious and based on deceptive rhetoric.

Powell stated, “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, a collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants.” He further claimed, “When our coalition ousted the Taliban, the Zarqawi network helped establish another poison and explosive training center camp. And this camp is located in northeastern Iraq.”

Proving the link between al-Zarqawi and the Iraqi regime has thus far been impossible for the American intelligence community, as reported widely in the U.S. and foreign press.

Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent, is a shadowy figure who has recently been associated with the assassination last October of Laurence Foley, an American diplomatic officer in Jordan.

Al-Zarqawi is likely associated with al Qaeda. He did visit Iraq, but only to be hospitalized in Baghdad for wounds suffered in Afghanistan in the fighting after Sept. 11, 2001, when thousands lost their lives on U.S. soil during attacks on the World Trade Center and Washington, D.C. But thus far, no information has been revealed that would show that al-Zarqawi ever met with Iraqi officials.

The idea that al-Zarqawi runs a “terrorist network” of his own or that he is the No. 3 figure in al Qaeda is hyperbole. There is no information available that shows that he is anything other than a foot soldier in connection with known al Qaeda operatives. The administration hypothesis is essentially “proof by proximity.” They claim that al-Zarqawi had a group with whom he was operating, and that group could not be functioning in Baghdad without the complicity of Saddam Hussein’s government.

Washington officials also acknowledge that al-Zarqawi had support from a member of the Qatari Royal family, Abdul Karim al-Thani, who hosted him in Qatar. However, Washington officials do not claim that, as with Iraq, these facts show that the Qatari court is also connected to al Qaeda — particularly since the United States depends on Qatar to provide staging support for the U.S. Central Command.

Even if al-Zarqawi had been in touch with Iraqi officials, the idea that he is operating a terrorist training center in Northern Iraq is completely unproved. The training center does exist, and it does have connections to al Qaeda, but it is run by a dissident Kurdish Islamic militant group, Ansar al-Islam. This group is utterly opposed to the Iraqi regime and has no connection to it.

Thus, all the pieces in Powell’s accusation — al-Zarqawi, al-Ansar al-Islam, al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime — do exist. But the crucial connection between Saddam and al-Zarqawi is based on supposition, and all the rhetoric in the world cannot create a true link between them.

It is worth asking why the White House is so desperate to link al Qaeda to Saddam that they would resort to deception and lies. The reason may lie in the slipping U.S. support for the projected Iraqi war. When examined carefully, the Iraqi violations of U.N. resolution 1441 seem to amount to scurrying around to hide questionable vehicles, along with a few furtive phone calls wondering if inspectors will find something questionable in the facilities under scrutiny. The violations are so petty, so weak that it is hard to imagine sending 200,000 troops into Iraq to correct them.

Revenge is a powerful motivator, however. Americans are desperate to punish someone for the horrible Sept. 11 tragedy. In their grief, they are primed to believe any tenuous accusation. A recent poll shows that more than 80 percent believe that Saddam was responsible.

However, the international community has been more measured in its judgment and more skeptical.

The arrogance of the Bush White House should now be well known to most thinking Americans, but it is disappointing that one of our most trusted public officials would go before the United Nations and essentially lie about a matter so essential as this connection. Moreover, the Bush administration must be truly contemptuous of the world body, since the U.N. delegates could have read about the tenuousness of the al-Zarqawi connection in newspapers just days before Powell addressed them.

Beeman (William_beeman@brown.edu) teaches anthropology and is director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. He has conducted research in the Middle East for more than 30 years.

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