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The Rice Stuff?

Susan Rice talks about Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Does she know what's going on in Iraq?

12:00 AM, Oct 20, 2004 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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IN A CONFERENCE CALL with reporters Monday, Susan Rice was asked about Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Rice is a senior foreign policy adviser to John Kerry's presidential campaign who is often mentioned as a possible National Security Adviser in a Kerry White House. Her comments on Zarqawi make that a worrisome prospect.

Why? Rice's understanding of Zarqawi is wrong. Her comments directly contradict the findings of the review of prewar Iraq intelligence prepared by the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and signed by Senator John Edwards, a member of that panel.

Here's what Rice said Monday in response to a question about the Kerry campaign's "position on Zarqawi":

Our position is that he poses a major threat now in Iraq, a threat that frankly wasn't there before the U.S. invasion. But now we have got to go after him and capture him or kill him. Before the invasion, he was in non-Saddam controlled area, very minor, and didn't pose any imminent threat to the U.S., and was not in any way cooperating with al-Qaeda.

She's right about two things: (1) that Zarqawi "poses a major threat now in Iraq;" and (2) "we have got to go after him and capture or kill him."

Everything else is wrong.

Start with her claim that Zarqawi is "a threat that frankly wasn't there before the U.S. invasion." The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee review cites a CIA report, Iraq Support for Terrorism: "A variety of reporting indicates that senior al Qaeda terrorist planner al Zarqawi was in Baghdad [redacted]. A foreign government service asserted that the IIS [Iraqi Intelligence Service] knew where al Zarqawi was located despite Baghdad's claims that it could not find him." (p. 337)

Rice also claims that Zarqawi was in a "non-Saddam controlled area, very minor." Language from the Senate report (p. 338) suggests that while Zarqawi certainly operated out of non-Saddam controlled Iraq, he was also in Baghdad:

As indicated in Iraq Support for Terrorism, the Iraqi regime was, at a minimum, aware of Zarqawi's presence in Baghdad in 2002 because a foreign government service passed information regarding his whereabouts to Iraqi authorities in June 2002. Despite Iraq's pervasive security apparatus and its receipt of detailed information about al-Zarqawi's possible location, Iraqi Intelligence told the foreign government service it could not locate al-Zarqawi.

[Redacted] al Zarqawi and his network were operating both in Baghdad and in the Kurdish-controlled region of Iraq. The HUMINT reporting indicated that the Iraqi regime certainly knew that al-Zarqawi was in Baghdad because a foreign government service gave that information to Iraq. Though the intelligence reports established the presence of al-Zarqawi in Baghdad during 2002 and the activities of his network in other areas of Iraq during 2002 and 2003 [redacted]

The Senate report concluded that "the Central Intelligence Agency's assessment on safe haven--that al Qaeda or associated groups were present in Baghdad and in northeastern Iraq in an area under Kurdish control--were reasonable." (p.347).

What was Zarqawi doing in Iraq? Here is the assessment provided by the State Department's "Patterns of Global Terrorism," released April 30, 2003.

The presence of several hundred al-Qaida operatives fighting with the small Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam in the northeastern corner of Iraqi Kurdistan--where the IIS operates--is well documented. Iraq has an agent in the most senior levels of Ansar al-Islam as well. In addition, small numbers of highly placed al-Qaida militants were present in Baghdad and areas of Iraq that Saddam controls. It is inconceivable these groups were in Iraq without the knowledge and acquiescence of Saddam's regime. In the past year, al-Qaida operatives in northern Iraq concocted suspect chemicals under the direction of senior al-Qaida associate Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi and tried to smuggle them into Russia, Western Europe, and the United States for terrorist operations.

The timing of Rice's comments was unfortunate. The same day an Islamic website posted a statement in which Zarqawi pledges allegiance to Osama bin Laden. The fact that Zarqawi had not yet done so was cited by Bush administration critics as evidence that Zarqawi and bin Laden were more rivals than allies. Rice's claim--that Zarqawi "was not in any way cooperating with al Qaeda" before the U.S. invasion of Iraq--is on the extreme fringe of this thinking. And again, it's wrong.

There is little doubt that Zarqawi and bin Laden have had disagreements, both about tactics and strategy. But there is also little doubt that Zarqawi has met with and received support from bin Laden and, contrary to Rice's assertion, had actively cooperated with al Qaeda in the past.