"U.S. Not Claiming Iraqi Link To Terror"

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Posted by Lilly from ? ( on Tuesday, September 10, 2002 at 4:55PM :

In Reply to: from the Onion posted by Lilly from ? ( on Tuesday, September 10, 2002 at 4:48PM :

U.S. Not Claiming Iraqi Link To Terror

By Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 10, 2002; Page A01

As it makes its case against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration has for now dropped what had been one of the central arguments presented by supporters of a military campaign against Baghdad: Iraq's links to al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

Although administration officials say they are still trying to develop a strong case tying Hussein to global terrorism, the CIA has yet to find convincing evidence despite having combed its files and redoubled its efforts to collect and analyze information related to Iraq, according to senior intelligence officials and outside experts with knowledge of discussions within the U.S. government.

Most specifically, analysts who have scrutinized photographs, communications intercepts and information from foreign informants have concluded they cannot validate two prominent allegations made by high-ranking administration officials: links between Hussein and al Qaeda members who have taken refuge in northern Iraq and an April 2001 meeting in Prague between Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent.

"It's a thin reed," said a senior intelligence official describing the information on both cases.

As a result of the CIA's conclusions, the Bush administration has accepted the notion that its stronger case against Iraq is Baghdad's apparent ongoing attempt to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. President Bush is expected to focus on this aspect during his speech Thursday to the United Nations in which he will present the administration's Iraq policy.

"At some point we will certainly make the case concerning Iraq and its links to terrorism," a senior administration official said yesterday. "We still have to develop it more."

The latest sign that the administration has chosen to drop references to Hussein's alleged links to terrorist groups came yesterday at a meeting in Detroit between Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. The Canadian premier, who told reporters afterward that he had specifically asked the president about links between al Qaeda and Iraq, said Bush had responded, "That is not the angle they're exploring now. The angle they're exploring is the production of weapons of mass destruction."

A more mundane, yet concrete indication that the CIA's focus is elsewhere is that the agency has not established an Iraq task force at its counterterrorism center at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

According to sources, the CIA believes that the last time Iraq planned an anti-American attack was in April 1993, when it organized a failed assassination plot against former president George H.W. Bush during a visit to Kuwait. The Clinton administration retaliated by launching a cruise missile strike against Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad.

The State Department's annual Patterns of Global Terrorism report has for several years said that Iraq plans and sponsors international terrorism, but that its activities are directed mostly at the Iraqi government's domestic opponents. The reports have noted that Hussein allowed Abu Nidal, the Palestinian terrorist who died in Baghdad last month, to seek refuge and that he hosts some minor Palestinian rejectionist groups, such as the Palestinian Liberation Front, and a small Iranian militia opposed to the Iranian government.

Hussein "has in the past had some dealings with terrorists, clearly," Vice President Cheney told the Council on Foreign Relations in February, mentioning Abu Nidal by name. The latest State Department report concluded that Abu Nidal had not been involved in known acts of terrorism since the early 1990s and had "not attacked Western targets since the late 1980s."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last month tried to draw attention to what he said was "al Qaeda in a number of locations in Iraq." Questioned about whether members of the group were hiding in northern Iraq, which is controlled by Kurdish opponents of Hussein, Rumsfeld said, "In a vicious, repressive dictatorship that exercises near-total control over its population, it's very hard to imagine that the government is not aware of what's taking place in the country."

Rumsfeld was referring to Ansar al Islam, a group of about 150 Arabs who fled Afghanistan and came to northern Iraq through Iran after the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan. The Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, an anti-Hussein group in northern Iraq, says it has jailed 15 to 20 al Qaeda members and was surprised that no one from the U.S. government has come to interrogate them.

One senior counterterrorism official confirmed that the CIA knew of the detentions and that U.S. officials have not interrogated the prisoners. "We really don't know whether they are under al Qaeda or Saddam's control," the official said. "Ansar trained in Afghan camps. They used Afghanistan as their headquarters. It's tough to nail down the other details. It's not implausible that they are working with Saddam. His intel links into northern Iraq are very strong."

Supporters of military action in Iraq this year also used information from the Czech Republic to make the case that Atta, the alleged ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks, met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague. But CIA officials who scrutinized the report's source -- an Arab student not considered particularly reliable who relayed the information to the Czech government -- concluded there was no evidence to support the claim.

The two men allegedly met to plot a conspiracy to attack Radio Free Europe's office in Prague, which also houses Radio Free Iraq, a U.S.-financed anti-Hussein radio station. Some administration officials still find the initial report of the Atta-Iraqi meeting "believable," the senior official said.

The administration's attempt to link Iraq to terrorism has been criticized by former military, intelligence and national security officials who monitored terrorism in both Democratic and Republican administrations.

"Is there any confirmed evidence of Iraq's links to terrorism? No," said Vincent M. Cannistraro, former head of the CIA's counterterrorism office.

In an interview with CNN yesterday, Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to Bush's father, differed with Cheney's comments on Iraq and global terrorism.

"Vice President Cheney is a very dear friend of mine. Not all my good friends are always right," Scowcroft said. "I'm not even saying he is wrong. What I really am saying is that suppose there had been no 9/11 attack at all. Saddam Hussein would still be doing exactly what he is doing. He is not a problem for us because of terrorism."

Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

-- Lilly
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