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The Al Qaeda Connection

From the May 12, 2003 issue: Saddam's links to Osama were no secret.

May 12, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 34 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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OOPS. In what could go down as the Mother of All Copyediting Errors, Babil, the official newspaper of Saddam Hussein's government, run by his oldest son Uday, last fall published information that appears to confirm U.S. allegations of links between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda. It adds one more piece to the small pile of evidence emerging from Iraq that, when added to the jigsaw puzzle we already had, makes obsolete the question of whether Saddam and Osama bin Laden were in league and leaves in doubt only the extent of the connection.

In its November 16, 2002, edition, Babil identified one Abd-al-Karim Muhammad Aswad as an "intelligence officer," describing him as the "official in charge of regime's contacts with Osama bin Laden's group and currently the regime's representative in Pakistan." A man of this name was indeed the Iraqi ambassador to Pakistan from the fall of 1999 until the fall of the regime.

Aswad's name was included in something Babil called an "honor list." Below that heading, in boldface type, came a straightforward introductory comment: "We publish this list of great men for the sons of our great people to see." Directly beneath that declaration came a cryptic addendum--included by accident?--in regular type: "This is a list of the henchmen of the regime. Our hands will reach them sooner or later. Woe unto them. A list of the leaders of Saddam's regime, as well as their present and previous posts."

Then comes the list of regime officials. It is in alphabetical order until, halfway down the page, it starts over with officials whose names begin with the letter "A." It includes Baath party leaders, military heroes, ambassadors, intelligence chiefs, the commander of the "Saddam Cubs Training Center," governors of Iraqi provinces, chemical and biological weapons experts, and so on.

U.S. intelligence experts have not conclusively determined what the list means. One possible explanation they have entertained is that part of the list came from an opposition source, and that Babil republished it as a gesture of defiance. This would account for the reference to "henchmen of the regime" whom "our hands will reach"--to say nothing of the candid description of Aswad's duties.

Sounds plausible. But that explanation leaves unanswered one important question: Why would the regime, at a time when it was publicly denying any link to al Qaeda, publish anything admitting such a link?

Even if the identification of Aswad in the Babil list was nothing more than an embarrassing editorial oversight, several recent developments have bolstered the Bush administration's case that Saddam Hussein had connections to the al Qaeda leader.

On April 28, senior administration officials announced that the United States had captured an al Qaeda terrorist operating in Baghdad. The operative is believed to have been an associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a top al Qaeda figure who plotted the assassination of Laurence Foley, an American diplomat gunned down in Jordan last fall. Zarqawi is also believed to have received medical treatment in Baghdad after he was wounded fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

That arrest came shortly after U.S. troops patrolling the Syrian border captured Farouk Hijazi, long believed to have been an outreach coordinator of sorts between the Iraqi government and al Qaeda. Hijazi, formerly a high-ranking Iraqi intelligence official, has confirmed to U.S. officials that he met Osama bin Laden in Sudan in 1994. He denies meeting with al Qaeda officials in 1998, but U.S. officials don't believe him. At that time, a leading newspaper in Rome reported that Hijazi traveled to Afghanistan on December 21, 1998, to offer asylum to bin Laden. The Corriere della Sera described Hijazi as "the person who has been responsible for nurturing Iraq's ties with the fundamentalist warriors since 1994."

Back then, reports about a budding Hussein-bin Laden partnership were not limited to the foreign press. Newsweek magazine, in its January 11, 1999, issue, ran the headline "Saddam + Bin Laden." The subhead declared, "America's two enemies are courting." The article was written by Christopher Dickey, Gregory Vistica, Russell Watson, and Joseph Contreras. The authors cited reports from an "Arab intelligence source" about the alliance.