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Iraq: Is Occupation Helping Or Hindering The Global War Against Terrorism?

  • Jeremy Bransten

As U.S. President George W. Bush and members of his administration reassert their commitment to America's global war on terrorism, some are questioning whether the recent U.S.-led military action against Iraq -- conducted in the name of defeating terrorism -- is actually helping to encourage, rather than end, such attacks.

Prague, 12 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- One year ago today, U.S. President George W. Bush stood before world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York and laid out the case for taking action against Iraq.

Bush said Saddam Hussein posed a "grave and gathering danger" to international security, and he called on the world body to approve the use of force, if necessary, to enforce UN resolutions. But regardless of the Security Council's decision, Bush said America had already decided on its course of action.

"We cannot stand by and do nothing while dangers gather. We must stand up for our security and for the permanent rights and the hopes of mankind. By heritage and by choice, the United States of America will make that stand, and, delegates to the United Nations, you have the power to make that stand as well," Bush said.

The crux of Bush's argument was that Hussein already possessed and was further developing weapons of mass destruction. The inability of coalition forces to find evidence of any weapons of mass destruction, five months into their occupation of Iraq, has cast doubt on this rationale for the U.S.-led invasion of the country.

In addition, Bush alleged a link between the Iraqi regime and the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization, blamed for the 3,000 deaths in the U.S. on 11 September 2001. "Iraq's government openly praised the attacks of 11 September. Al-Qaeda terrorists escaped from Afghanistan and are known to be in Iraq," he said.

The U.S. administration based its assertion on, among other things, the presence of camps containing several hundred fighters from the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group in northern Iraq. Most of those fighters are believed to have either fled or to have been killed during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Many are believed to have since returned to Iraq, but their links to Hussein's former regime and Al-Qaeda remain unproven.

At the time of the war, experts had not detected any other international terrorist group with a major presence in Iraq and none outside the country with a demonstrable link to Hussein's regime. But many experts now fear a connection may be forming, paradoxically, thanks to the U.S.-led invasion and the chaos that has existed in Iraq since Hussein's ouster.

Historian Youssef Choueiri is an expert on modern Arab states and Islam at the University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in England. He told RFE/RL that the United States military, by its occupation of Iraq, is acting as a magnet for a whole range of anti-U.S. terrorist groups. And he believes the failure of the U.S. administration to establish order in post-Saddam Iraq has created ideal conditions for terrorists and foreign fighters to enter the country.

"What [the Americans] did was simply to open Iraq's international borders to international terrorists, in the sense that they dissolved the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi security forces, and now anyone can cross into Iraq from Iran, Turkey, even Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait and nobody will stop them. And this is actually a ridiculous state of affairs, that a country which was tightly controlled by a dictatorship has descended into chaos as a result of the absence of any planning for postwar Iraq," Choueiri said.

Richard Evans, an analyst at Jane's Terrorism Intelligence Centre in Britain, told RFE/RL that prior to the war, by all accounts, Hussein's secular regime and Islamic radicals loyal to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had little in common. The extent to which they have managed to establish links in today's occupied Iraq remains unclear.

"On the face of it, you would imagine that bin Laden and those with his outlook wouldn't really have a great deal of time for a Ba'athist regime like that which Saddam represented," Evans said. "What the situation now, of course, is on the ground in Iraq is the big question. To what extent would remnants of the Ba'ath regime or Saddam's security forces be hooking up with the jihadi fighters, whether that is Ansar al-Islam or Al-Qaeda operatives or whoever it might be, sharing weapons, equipment, or expertise?"

According to Choueiri, no such linkup is necessary for the kinds of terrorist attacks that have rocked Iraq in recent weeks to continue, given the current porousness of Iraq's borders. "They don't have to agree ideologically or philosophically. They don't even have to meet. They both have the same aim. They want to drive out the occupation, and they work according to different methods, and they operate on the basis of different programs, but they share a common view of things on the ground. And I don't think there is actually any concrete coordination between Saddam Hussein on the one hand and Osama bin Laden on the other," Choueiri said.

Evans questioned the view put forward of Al-Qaeda as a vast, hydra-like monster, directing terrorist operations in scores of countries around the world. "It's very tempting to regard every major attack in the light of 9/11 as being an Al-Qaeda terrorist plot or in some way influenced by Al-Qaeda," he said. "In many cases, when you peel back the layers, that's probably not the case."

Evans and other experts say bin Laden and his associates are just one part of the global terrorism picture. Although they may inspire other groups to carry out terrorist actions, the link between them is often illusory. "In short, what you're dealing with now is a global, radical Islamic terrorist movement, of which Al-Qaeda, i.e. bin Laden and his small collective of immediate associates, are just one part," Evans said. "An awful lot of attacks which I think in recent months have been claimed in the name of Al-Qaeda probably had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda at all. But I think the ideology has acquired a following of its own, and you'll find that there are Islamic radical terrorist networks in various regions around the world that will want to see themselves as being associated with this broad global Islamic front."

Choueiri said that, far from defeating terrorism, America's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and what appears to be the failure of U.S. forces to establish nationwide stability in either country -- may be inspiring terrorist groups.

"The result of this is actually a clear indication to all these groups that America does not have a clear strategy beyond using brute force, and the reaction to this is an increase in terrorism rather than a decrease in terrorist attacks," Choueiri said. "And we've seen this in Indonesia, in the Philippines, across the Middle East, as well as in Europe itself. That is, terrorist attacks, operations -- even aborted ones -- have actually increased, despite the increase in security measures and other policy decisions which were made to curb terrorism."

At commemorations yesterday to mark the second anniversary of the 11 September terrorist attacks, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld explicitly rejected this argument, saying that America's military involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries is helping to defeat terrorism, not fan it. "We know that if we do not fight the terrorists over there in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and across the world, then we will have to face them here, and many more innocent men, women, and children, as well as the patriots defending them, will perish," Rumsfeld said.

And yesterday, Bush reiterated his belief that Iraq is the "major front" in the war on terrorism, and that progress is being made. "We are fighting this war [on terror] on a lot of fronts, the major front of which is now in Iraq. And we're making steady progress toward achieving our objective, and we will continue to make progress," he said.

In London, meanwhile, a parliamentary report released yesterday said British intelligence chiefs had warned Prime Minister Tony Blair -- Bush's closest ally in the war on Iraq -- that military action against Iraq would make it easier for terrorist groups to obtain chemical and biological weapons.

The country's Joint Intelligence Committee also concluded that the threat from Al-Qaeda would be heightened by military action against Iraq.