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A Match Made in Hell

Today Colin Powell will deliver evidence not only of Saddam's U.N. violations, but of Iraqi cooperation with al Qaeda.

11:00 PM, Feb 4, 2003 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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COLIN POWELL travels to the United Nations today to "make the case" for war in Iraq. He will detail Saddam Hussein's possession, ongoing development, and continued concealment of weapons of mass destruction. It's a solid case, and most Americans buy it. As Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) told me last week, "There is no doubt in my mind that if Saddam Hussein were put on trial for having weapons of mass destruction, he would be found guilty." Those predisposed to agree with us will find it compelling. So will most of the fence-sitters, including Russia. But others determined to oppose doing something about those weapons--France, Germany, Syria and lately, Tom Daschle--will probably remain unconvinced.

While twelve years of noncompliance ought to be enough when the violations concern deadly weapons held by a murderous dictator, Powell is expected to reveal fresh evidence Saddam's deception--behavior specifically prohibited, of course, by U.N. Resolution 1441 and its numerous precedents. Among those details will be intercepts of Iraqis plotting to trick inspectors and, later, celebrating their successful deception.

That argument--that Saddam is non-compliant on weapons of mass destruction--was expected to make up the bulk of Powell's 90-minute presentation to the Security Council. But that changed yesterday afternoon, when top officials approved a section of the talk devoted to revealing the growing body of evidence showing a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. This marks something of a departure. For while many top administration officials have long claimed such a connection, they have been reluctant to use it to justify war in Iraq. Last summer, I interviewed several administration officials who said U.S. intelligence showed "solid" links between al Qaeda and Saddam. Since then, interrogations with captured al Qaeda operatives have strengthened that case.

The decision to include the al Qaeda information ended a fierce intra-administration battle that has lasted more than a week. Those who wanted to include it point to two benefits: (1) Reluctant allies will put more stock in suggestions that Saddam might pass his deadly weapons on to terrorists eager to use them; and (2) Even if some allies don't find those arguments persuasive, the American public will. After all, nerve gas in New York is more likely than a chemical attack in Cannes.

Skeptics of this connection should read two pieces by New Yorker writer Jeffrey Goldberg, one of them in the current issue (that piece is something of a follow-up to the extraordinary article he wrote last spring). Taken together, they offer an eye-opening and detailed account of the cooperation between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. This is from Goldberg's latest:

According to several intelligence officials I spoke to, the relationship between bin Laden and Saddam's regime was brokered in the early nineteen-nineties by the then de-facto leader of Sudan, the pan-Islamist radical Hassan al-Tourabi. Tourabi, sources say, persuaded the ostensibly secular Saddam to add to the Iraqi flag the words "Allahu Akbar," as a concession to Muslim radicals.

In interviews with senior officials, the following picture emerged: American intelligence believes that Al Qaeda and Saddam reached a non-aggression agreement in 1993, and that the relationship deepened further in the mid-nineteen-nineties, when an Al Qaeda operative (a native-born Iraqi who goes by the name Abu Abdullah al-Iraq) was dispatched by bin Laden to ask the Iraqis for help in poison-gas training. Al-Iraqi's mission was successful, and an unknown number of trainers from an Iraqi secret-police organization called Unit 999 were dispatched to camps in Afghanistan to instruct Al Qaeda terrorists. (Training in hijacking techniques was also provided to foreign Islamist radicals inside Iraq, according to two Iraqi defectors quoted in a report in the Times in November of 2001.) Another Al Qaeda operative, the Iraqi-born Mamdouh Salim, who goes by the name Abu Hajer al-Iraqi, also served as a liaison in the mid-nineteen-nineties to Iraqi intelligence. Salim, according to a recent book, "The Age of Sacred Terror," by the former N.S.C. officials Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, was bin Laden's chief procurer of weapons of mass destruction, and was involved in the early nineties in chemical-weapons development in Sudan.

Salim was arrested in Germany in 1998 and was extradited to the United States. He is awaiting trial in New York on charges related to the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings; he was convicted last April of stabbing a Manhattan prison guard in the eye with a sharpened comb.

Intelligence officials told me that the agency also takes seriously reports that an Iraqi known as Abu Wa'el, whose real name is Saadoun Mahmoud Abdulatif al-Ani, is the liaison of Saddam's intelligence service to a radical Muslim group called Ansar al-Islam, which controls a small enclave in northern Iraq; the group is believed by American and Kurdish intelligence officials to be affiliated with Al Qaeda. I learned of another possible connection early last year, while I was interviewing Al Qaeda operatives in a Kurdish prison in Sulaimaniya. There, a man whom Kurdish intelligence officials identified as a captured Iraqi agent told me that in 1992 he served as a bodyguard to Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's deputy, when Zawahiri secretly visited Baghdad.

Goldberg's reporting last spring offered even more details. (Many of those details were seconded by a British documentary team that produced a special for PBS.) It was, in a word, stunning--the kind of article that should have changed long-accepted thinking about al Qaeda and Iraq. But while it was widely circulated among those of us who want regime change in Iraq, and triggered follow-ups, eventually, by U.S. intelligence, it failed to pierce the conventional-wisdom bubble of the national media.

Powell's testimony could change that. And even if these revelations fail to convince the French of the Iraqi threat, they might well persuade Americans.

Says Bayh: "The only evidence that some abroad will accept is more American casualties, and those are arguments we cannot accept."

Stephen F. Hayes is staff writer at The Weekly Standard.