Colin Powell’s big oral presentation Feb 5 was aimed mostly at other governments– right? Well, put it this way, not wholly right. In fact, a large part of the speech was, by common consent, aimed much more at the US public than at people or governments elsewhere. That was the portion of the speech where he was attempting to establish a link between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda. Scarier still: he argued there’s a link between Saddam’s regime and Qaedaterrorists who are gaining access to biological and chemical weapons…
Very scary stuff for Americans still reeling from the shocks of September 11. But the links Powell talked about, between Saddam and al-Qaeda are not, it turns out, well established by the facts of the matter.
Powell’s case hinged centrally on the alleged links between Saddam’s regime and a predominantly Kurdish Islamic-extremist group called Ansar al-Islam that is based in northern Iraq. (It’s also called “the Zarkawi network”.) “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Massad Al-Zarqawi an associate and collaborator of Usama bin Laden and his al-Qaida lieutenants,” Powell claimed in his speech to the U.N. He went on to explain that after Qaeda and the Taliban had been routed from Afghanistan, the Zarqawi network–which had previously been running advanced chemical-weapons research and production facilities in Afghanistan, “helped establish another poison and explosive training center camp, and this camp is located in northeastern Iraq. You see a picture of this camp. [shows one of his indecipherable pictures.] The network is teaching its operatives how to produce ricin and other poisons. Let me remind you how ricin works. Less than a pinch — imagine a pinch of salt — less than a pinch of ricin, eating just this amount in your food, would cause shock, followed by circulatory failure. Death comes within 72 hours and there is no antidote. There is no cure. It is fatal…”
Are you scared yet? You’re supposed to be… But here across my electronic transom today comes a report from the International Crisis Group, a sober research-and-analysis outfit run by a former Foreign Minister of Australia and a former President of Finland. The ICG has some analysts on Iraqi affairs who are world-class: objective and well-informed. Their conclusion about “Ansar al-Islam”? “Little is certain about the external connections of Ansar al-Islam, an offshoot of an Islamist movement with a long history in Kurdish politics,” the report writes. “What is clear is that the main support for Ansar al-Islam comes from powerful factions in Iran, its sole lifeline to the outside world.”
Iran? Howzzat again?
In the press release that accompanied publication of the report, ICG Middle East Program Director Robert Malley said of the enclave in northern Iraq where the Ansar al-Islam are holed up: “This is a region outside Baghdad’s control and we see no evidence that Ansar has a strategic alliance with Saddam Hussein. There is no question that the group has brought misery to many people in the area it controls, but it is highly unlikely that Ansar al-Islam is anything more than a minor irritant in local Kurdish politics”.
And this is the “evidence” that links Saddam to Qaeda?
The ICG report is called, “Radical Islam In Iraqi Kurdistan: The Mouse That Roared?” Go read it.
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I note, parenthetically, that one of the strongest and most persistent proponents of the Saddam-Ansar-Qaeda link has been our old friend Bill Safire.
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This kind of “tapping into the general fear regardless of what actually caused it” routine reminds me of what Shimon Peres’ government did in Israel in early 1996. Back then, Israeli voters were– quite understandably– fearful, angry, and traumatized because Palestinian terrorists had set off a string of very damaging attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Some 60-plus Israelis had been killed. Peres was going into an election. He evidently felt he “had to do something!” So he hit back– against the poor longsuffering people of south Lebanon who had suffered many, many tough assaults at Israel’s hands since 1978.
Yes, I know there have been so many Israeli attacks against south Lebanon over the years. Peres’s heroic campaign was the one called “Operation Grapes of Wrath”. The operation’s game plan as articulated by Israeli military leaders involved uprooting as much as possible of the civilian population of south Lebanon, herding them north to Beirut, in the hope that once there they would put pressure on the Lebanese government to start acting against the Hizbollah guerrillas who had been mounting an increasingly effective resistance to Israel’s presence in south Lebanon in the preceding years. (And if such deliberate use of civilian suffering to force political goals is not also terrorism, I’d like to know what it is.)
The operation backfired badly. Because of the sheer density of Israeli bombs dropped it was not surprising that some ended up hitting a U.N.-protected gathering point for civilians in Kafr Qana. More than 120 civilians were obliterated, wiped out, killed. Oh what an embarrassment for Peres. The Lebanese people united around the slogan of rapid Israeli withdrawal– and Hizbollah were more popular than ever before. (Note to Rumsfeld et al: that’s what military overkill does for you, friend.)
And the darnedest thing for Peres, too. He didn’t even get re-elected that time! (He has never actually won an Israeli election.) Funny thing about those Israeli-Arab voters: they didn’t feel like going to the polls to support Peres that time, but stayed home in droves instead How irrational can you get?
Sic tempera, sic mores, I would say (and it’s a pity my Dad’s not around to check the Latin). Anyway, couple of years later, I go to Israel, meet Peres in his elegant office in the Shalom Center in tel Aviv– main form of decoration: pictures of you-know-who doing various things, or awards given to you-know-who. He graciously agreed to answer the questions I had on the research I was doing about the Israeli-Syrian negotiations that had run from 1991 through 1996. (Read the book that I wrote about that. It’s pretty darn’ interesting.) Obviously, His April 1996 campaign against Lebanon played into that…
“So tell me, Mr Peres,” I say, trying desperately to keep my eyes from lingering too long on his startlingly purple-dyed hair, “–can you tell me exactly why it was that you decided you needed to move so hard against Lebanon’s Hizbollah at that time?”
“Terror in the south, terror in the north!” was the best explanation he could come up with at the time. I assume he thought I was quite unaware of the fact that Lebanese Hizbollah and the Palestinian groups that had masterminded the suicide bombs were quite separate organizations, and that I would simply take at face value his “explanation” that if one bunch of folks hits you, then the general sense of outrage you feel because of that makes it quite okay– nay, perhaps even necessary— to go out and get your revenge against a totally distinct third party.
And now, this seems to be Colin Powell’s argumentation. O tempora, o mores.