The Magazine

Their Man in Baghdad

What Zarqawi--and al Qaeda--were up to before the Iraq war.

Jun 19, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 38 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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THE LAST QUESTION to General Bill Caldwell at his briefing last Thursday on the death of Abu Musab al Zarqawi came from New York Times reporter Richard Oppel, who wanted to know about Abu al-Masri, an Egyptian whom many expect to replace Zarqawi as the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Said Caldwell: "Yeah, al Masri, Egyptian Arab. He's not an Iraqi. Born and raised in Egypt. He was trained in Afghanistan, went through his training there. We know he has been involved with IEDs and making here in Iraq. Probably came here around 2002 into Iraq, probably actually helped establish maybe the first al Qaeda cell that existed in the Baghdad area."

Huh? Doesn't Caldwell understand that there were no al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq before the U.S. invasion of March 2003? Everyone knows that terrorists flocked to Iraq only after the war began.

Reading the coverage of Zarqawi's death in the mainstream press one can understand why that myth persists. Many journalists either don't know or choose not to report the fact that Zarqawi was in Baghdad with two dozen al Qaeda associates nearly a year before the war.

It is a fact not seriously in dispute: Colin Powell cited it in his presentation at the United Nations before the war; the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed it in its bipartisan review of Iraq war intelligence; General Tommy Franks noted in his book about the Iraq war that Zarqawi "had received medical treatment in Baghdad"; and the Jordanian government provided detailed information on Zarqawi's whereabouts to the Iraqi regime in June 2002, as Amman has since acknowledged.

Why, then, in its 35-point bulleted list of "Key Events in the Life of al-Zarqawi," did the New York Times fail to include the terrorist leader's time in Baghdad? And why, in his reflections on Zarqawi in Newsweek, did reporter Christopher Dickey mention that the Jordanian terrorist linked up "with a group of radical Islamists in the rough mountains of the Kurdish north, outside Saddam's control" but say nothing about his time in Saddam's Baghdad?

A Times news account by its superb Baghdad bureau chief, John Burns, noted Caldwell's answer to Oppel. But many news stories simply left out the fact that Zarqawi and his associates were operating openly in Baathist Iraq for months before the U.S. invasion in March 2003. Others went further. Associated Press writer Patrick Quinn suggested that Bush administration claims that Zarqawi was a link between Iraq and al Qaeda were deceptive.

"The myth-building around al Zarqawi began even before the war started in March 2003," he wrote. "A month earlier, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told the U.N. Security Council that al Zarqawi's presence in Iraq was proof of Saddam Hussein's links to al Qaeda.

"That claim was later debunked by U.S. intelligence officials."

That's wrong. Not only was the claim never "debunked," it was confirmed by the Senate Intelligence Committee's July 2004 review of pre-Iraq war intelligence. On February 5, 2003, Powell told the Security Council that the United States was concerned about "the sinister nexus between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network, a nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder. Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants."

Powell described Zarqawi's training in Afghanistan, his experience working with chemical weapons, and a chemical weapons facility Zarqawi set up in northern Iraq.

Powell continued:

those helping to run this camp are Zarqawi lieutenants operating in northern Kurdish areas outside Saddam Hussein's controlled Iraq.

But Baghdad has an agent in the most senior levels of the radical organization, Ansar al-Islam, that controls this corner of Iraq. In 2000 this agent offered al Qaeda safe haven in the region. After we swept al Qaeda from Afghanistan, some of its members accepted this safe haven. They remain there today.

Zarqawi's activities are not confined to this small corner of northeast Iraq. He traveled to Baghdad in May 2002 for medical treatment, staying in the capital of Iraq for two months while he recuperated to fight another day.

During this stay, nearly two dozen extremists converged on Baghdad and established a base of operations there. These al Qaeda affiliates, based in Baghdad, now coordinate the movement of people, money and supplies into and throughout Iraq for his network, and they've now been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months.

Iraqi officials deny accusations of ties with al Qaeda. These denials are simply not credible. Last year an al Qaeda associate bragged that the situation in Iraq was, quote, "good," that Baghdad could be transited quickly.