Washington has announced a new war on terrorism, and the U.S. administration is reported to be discussing whether that effort should include actions against Iraq. The argument is being fueled by reports that an Iraqi intelligence agent met earlier this year with one of the suspected suicide pilots that attacked New York's World Trade Center on 11 September.
Prague, 21 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- No proof has emerged yet -- at least publicly -- that Iraq had anything to do with the suicide attacks believed to have killed some 6,500 people in New York and Washington last week.
But U.S. newspapers are reporting that Baghdad could be linked to the bombings and that the U.S. administration is debating whether to include Iraq in its potential list of targets for a military response.
"The Wall Street Journal" and "Boston Globe," among others, wrote this week that a classified U.S. intelligence report indicates that one of the suspected hijackers, Mohamed Atta, met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Europe earlier this year. Atta, who had trained as a pilot, is believed to be one of the hijackers who crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center last week.
The newspapers quote U.S. officials as cautioning that the classified information, reportedly provided by an unspecified foreign agent, does not conclusively link Iraq to the attacks. But, as one unidentified official told the "Boston Globe," "After the report, [U.S. officials are] looking really seriously at Iraq."
Baghdad has said it played no role in the attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sent what Baghdad called "an open letter to the West" earlier this week saying that the U.S. was using the attacks as a pretext to settle old scores.
Saddam said that "nobody has any doubt that the United States and the West have the capabilities to mobilize force and use it to inflict destruction on the basis of mere suspicions."
The newspaper "USA Today" reported this week that advisers to U.S. President George W. Bush are "heatedly" debating whether to widen the war on terrorism to include the Iraqi leader.
The paper said that the debate is being waged largely between Pentagon officials such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who has long backed toppling Saddam's regime by force, and diplomats at the State Department. "USA Today" reports that the diplomats, whom it does not name, fear that any broadening of Washington's response to include Iraq would complicate U.S. efforts to build a wide coalition to root out Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. The network is believed to have cells in 60 countries.
Neil Partrick, a policy expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says that so long as there is no clear evidence against Iraq, targeting Baghdad will likely take second place to Washington's coalition-building efforts.
"The priority is to build the broadest coalition possible, not just in terms of contributing bases or, indeed, fighting men but also on the diplomatic and intelligence front and indeed just simply because of the important symbolism of having countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example, on side or at least not off-side...[so] in that sense Iraq would very much complicate the picture," he said.
"The idea here is to fight a very long campaign over many years in terms of dealing with terrorism through a variety of forms," Partrick continued. "This requires the assistance of a number of countries who have either improved enormously their relations with Baghdad, countries in the Middle East particularly, or at least are very sensitive to their own domestic opinion, which is very unhappy about the tenor of U.S. and U.K. policy toward Iraq over the last 10 years."
In building its anti-terrorism coalition, Washington has been contacting numerous states in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere, including six of the seven states the State Department identifies as being themselves sponsors of state terrorism. The six are Sudan, Cuba, Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Libya. The seventh state Washington accuses of sponsoring terrorism is Iraq.
Partrick says the current allegations implicating Baghdad in the 11 September attacks are not likely to be sufficiently strong to convince most states in the still-forming coalition that Iraq played an active role.
"There are accusations and suggestions that meetings may have occurred between a member of one of the elite intelligence organizations in Baghdad and a senior bin Laden official. Such meetings, sadly, have gone on with a variety of actors in the Middle East but not necessarily are any indication of Iraq's role in what happened in the USA."
He adds: "There isn't any concrete evidence of Baghdad as having served in recent years as the kind of capital of terrorism in the Middle East as it has in the past when, of course, it had rather better relations with both London and Washington. If that was to turn around and Baghdad was seen having a very major role in terrorism internationally, then perhaps there would be a different view taken."
Top U.S. officials have given mixed reactions to media reports linking Iraq to the attacks.
Asked on 18 September whether the U.S. had evidence of "state support" for the attacks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he would leave the question to the Justice Department. But he added, "I know a lot," and that, "What I have said is that states are supporting these people." He did not elaborate.
But Vice President Dick Cheney has said that he has seen nothing directly connecting Baghdad to the attacks. When asked by reporters on 16 September if there is any evidence implicating Saddam Hussein, he responded with one word: "No."