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UN: Powell Expected To Present Evidence Of Iraq-Al-Qaeda Link

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to tell the United Nations Security Council tomorrow that Washington has clear evidence of Iraqi links to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Much of his argument is likely to focus on the presence of suspected members of the terrorist group in both Baghdad and Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq. RFE/RL looks at the possible outlines of the U.S. case.

Prague, 4 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and British accusations of Iraqi links to Al-Qaeda have so far been insistent but vague. The thrust of the argument has been that Al-Qaeda seeks the most potent weapons possible to attack U.S. and Western targets. Thus, there is reason to suspect the group will make common cause with Baghdad, a declared enemy of the United States that is known to have developed weapons of mass destruction.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair summarized that argument in a joint press conference with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington last week. "I have absolutely no doubt at all that unless we deal with both of these threats, they will come together in a deadly form," Blair said. "What do we know after September 11? We know that these terrorist networks will use any means they can to cause maximum death and destruction. And we know also that they will do whatever they can to acquire the most deadly weaponry they can. And that is why it is important to deal with these issues together."

But if top British and U.S. officials have suggested that motives are a sufficient reason to suspect Al-Qaeda and Iraq of collusion, such statements have fallen well short of convincing officials in many other capitals. So, tomorrow, after persistent calls from many countries and from opinion leaders in the United States and Britain, Washington will present evidence it says proves there is a clear Iraq-Al-Qaeda nexus.

No one knows the details of the evidence U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will reveal. But there is much press speculation that he will focus on two subjects. One is an armed Islamist group with known ties to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, which has established a fundamentalist enclave in the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq. That group is Ansar al-Islam, whose members are Iraqi Kurds, plus an unknown number of foreigners reported to include Jordanians, Moroccans, Palestinians, and Afghans. The militia has some 400 fighters and has carved out a durable stronghold along the Iranian border in an area formerly controlled by one of the main Iraqi-Kurdish factions, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The PUK has captured several Ansar al-Islam fighters in clashes over territory and has interrogated them extensively. PUK officials say the fighters have testified that Ansar al-Islam's stronghold is a refuge for members of Al-Qaeda evicted from Afghanistan and that Ansar al-Islam is a conduit for contacts between Baghdad and the global terrorist network.

Some of the PUK's captives have given detailed accounts to Western correspondents of personal contacts with Al-Qaeda leaders, including one prisoner, an Iranian Arab, who said he smuggled arms from Iraq to Afghanistan.

That prisoner also said he smuggled to Afghanistan canisters of liquids cooled by portable refrigerators, giving rise to press speculation that he may have transported biological-weapons material from Iraq to Al-Qaeda. The prisoner said he was instructed to smuggle the canisters to Afghanistan by Iraq's intelligence service but was never told their contents. There has been no independent confirmation of his story to date.

Powell has not said what he will tell the United Nations about Ansar al-Islam. But the secretary of state told reporters last week that he will be citing evidence from "intelligence sources, secret communications, and people now in custody."

U.S. President George W. Bush has said only that Powell will clearly detail ties between Al-Qaeda and Baghdad. "[Powell] will make it clear that [Iraqi President] Saddam [Hussein] is a menace to peace in his own neighborhood. He will also talk about Al-Qaeda links, links that really do portend a danger for America and for Great Britain, anybody else who loves freedom," Bush said.

In addition to talking about Ansar al-Islam, Powell is likely to focus on the presence of known members of Al-Qaeda in Baghdad-controlled areas of Iraq. One key figure is Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi, allegedly bin Laden's chief of chemical weapons, who received treatment in Iraq for wounds he suffered in Afghanistan. He is said to have had a leg amputated in a Baghdad hospital.

Zarqawi, whose current whereabouts are not known, is the focus of an international manhunt. He is suspected of planning a series of terrorist strikes in Europe, possibly including a foiled scheme to poison food at a British military base. The search for Zarqawi led British police to discover recently a small factory in a London apartment designed to produce the deadly chemical ricin.

It is uncertain whether Powell will also seek to link Zarqawi to Ansar al-Islam. Kurdish officials have said the group in northern Iraq has given refuge to Zarqawi, suggesting that he may have been a top-level contact between Baghdad and Al-Qaeda. U.S. officials have not so far commented on those Kurdish charges.

Analysts say Powell's main challenge tomorrow will be to demonstrate not only that Al-Qaeda is present in Iraq but also that it is in active cooperation with Iraqi authorities. To make that case, he will have to produce convincing information from intelligence services that, until now, has only been alluded to by U.S. and British officials.

Christopher Langton, the head of defense analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the new intelligence data is needed because the information publicly available today is not enough to prove Washington and London's charges. "There would be very few people who say [now that] there is a direct link [between Baghdad and Al-Qaeda]. There would be a lot of people who could say, yes, members of Al-Qaeda have been in Iraq. Of course, there are several terrorists who have been in the United Kingdom, [but] that doesn't mean to say that they are linked to the government," Langton said. "The danger, of course, is that being in Iraq makes access to material possible in some cases, materials that might lead to the construction of some kind of weapon of mass destruction. That is people's concern. But with the limited knowledge that we have [now], I would say there is very little to suggest a direct link with Al-Qaeda and the regime in Baghdad."

Some analysts have said that Iraq's secular Ba'athist regime is a natural enemy of the Islamic fundamentalist, revolutionary Al-Qaeda, and would be unlikely to trust it with weapons that could equally be turned against Saddam Hussein's own government.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz last week categorically denied any charges that his country has links to Al-Qaeda operatives. Aziz told a U.S. television network, "I challenge Bush and his government to present any evidence of that."