DID SADDAM HUSSEIN offer asylum to Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar? The answer, at least according to a report last week in Ummat, an Urdu-language newspaper in Karachi, Pakistan, is yes. The paper claims that a senior Iraqi diplomat, Taha Husseyn, met in Kandahar with the Taliban's Mavlana Jalal ud-Din Haqqani. Saddam allegedly offered not only sanctuary, but military and financial support as well.

It's difficult to assess the credibility of such reports (the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and other mainstream papers have used Ummat reporting in the past few months). And the timing of the supposed offer, first reported on November 22, would seem to make it at least curious if not absurd. After all, it's hard to imagine bin Laden or Omar escaping Afghanistan with the increased U.S. presence there. And why, skeptics might ask, would Saddam essentially invite the war to Iraq?

It's a good question, but there is at least one possible answer.

Saddam views U.S.-led attacks as inevitable. In recent weeks he has been shuffling his top leadership, rearranging his defenses, and preparing a line of succession. His rhetoric--on everything from the U.S. war on terrorism, to weapons inspections, to the U.N.'s new "smart sanctions"--has been defiant, almost provocative. With his back against the wall, Saddam could be seeking an alliance with bin Laden to rally radical Islamists to his defense.

Implausible? Maybe. But it's a scenario with historical precedent.

On December 16, 1998, the United States and Britain began four days of sustained bombing in Iraq--the Desert Fox campaign. The bombing came in response to Saddam's continued defiance of U.N. weapons inspections. The weapons inspectors had withdrawn after months--years, really--of Saddam's thwarting their efforts to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. They left unable to account for significant pockets of Saddam's weapons capability, particularly in his bio-weapons program. The bombing began shortly thereafter.

On December 21, Saddam dispatched Faruq Hijazi--the man who met with Mohamed Atta last year in Prague, is former head of Iraqi secret service, and was then-Ambassador to Turkey--to Afghanistan to offer bin Laden asylum. There had been previous contacts between representatives of bin Laden and Hussein, but this meeting carried special import because Hijazi was, according to Rome's daily newspaper Corriere della Sera (the paper which broke the story), "the person who has been responsible for nurturing Iraq's ties with the fundamentalist warriors since 1994." (Translation courtesy the Iraq Report.)

Media reports in late 1998 brimmed with speculation about a bin Laden-Hussein alliance.

Newsweek magazine, in its January 11, 1999 issue, ran a long article headlined: "Saddam + Bin Laden?" The story quoted an "Arab intelligence source" with knowledge of Saddam's plan. "According to this source, Saddam expected last month's American and British bombing campaign to go on much longer than it did. The dictator believed that as the attacks continued, indignation would grow in the Muslim world, making his terrorism offensive both harder to trace and more effective. With acts of terror contributing to chaos in the region, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait might feel less inclined to support Washington. Saddam's long-term strategy, according to several sources, is to bully or cajole Muslim countries into breaking the embargo against Iraq, without waiting for the United Nations to lift it formally."

Around the same time, Time magazine carried an interview with bin Laden in which the terrorist warned that he would "target any American who pays taxes to his government." And bin Laden was also asked about the bombing of Iraq, just weeks earlier: "There is no doubt that the treacherous attack has confirmed that Britain and America are acting on behalf of Israel and the Jews, paving the way for the Jews to divide the Muslim world once again, enslave it and loot the rest of its wealth. A great part of the force that carried out the attack came from certain Gulf countries that have lost their sovereignty."

Maybe the Ummat report isn't credible; maybe it's just some highly improbable conspiracy theory. If I were Saddam Hussein, I wouldn't be courting Osama bin Laden right now.

But then, I'm not Saddam Hussein. And after September 11, highly improbable conspiracies aren't quite as easily dismissed.

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

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