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Iraq: Would War Help Or Hinder The Fight Against Terrorism?

Nations opposed to a war in Iraq increasingly cite the dangers such a war would pose to that "other war" -- the war on terrorism. They say any action in Iraq would divert attention from the more important struggle against the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Washington tends to gloss over such distinctions, preferring to view its Iraqi policy as part of the overall antiterrorism effort. But both sides may be engaging in a bit of intellectual deception.

Prague, 23 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The German and Russian foreign ministers earlier this week offered what many see as persuasive arguments against war in Iraq.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, speaking at the UN Security Council in New York on 20 January, warned that war in Iraq poses a grave threat to the success of what he said is the more important international war on terrorism.

Fischer, whose country holds a rotating seat on the Security Council, warned that a new conflict could inflame anti-Western passions among Muslims and draw the world ever nearer to a clash of civilizations. "We shouldn't act in a way that at the end, the terrorist groups will be strengthened and not weakened because they want to drive us into a war of civilizations, and we should react in a wise way, based on a multilateral approach and based on the coalition in the war against terror," he said.

Fischer's argument was echoed, if phrased slightly differently, by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Ivanov said war in Iraq risks shattering the unity of the international antiterrorism coalition forged in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. That coalition spans all continents and links countries with widely diverging cultures and political systems.

Ivanov said: "It is crucially important to refrain from unilateral steps that might threaten the unity of the antiterrorist coalition. In this context, we are in favor of a political settlement of the situation around Iraq in strict accordance with the UN Security Council [resolutions]."

The foreign ministers' comments are part of a larger argument against war in Iraq that appears to be gaining ground. The argument goes as follows: The dangers posed by terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda are graver than those posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and that war against Iraq will only make that more crucial fight much more difficult.

Washington, for its part, rejects this view. The administration of President George W. Bush tends to see its Iraq policy as not separate from, but part of, the overall effort against groups like Al-Qaeda, even as evidence linking Saddam and Al-Qaeda is lacking.

The following comments from Bush in a speech last October are typical. He implied that Saddam and Al-Qaeda are different faces of what he calls the "same evil." "Saddam Hussein is harboring terrorists and the instruments of terror, the instruments of mass death and destruction, and he cannot be trusted. The risk is simply too great that he will use [the weapons] or provide them to a terror network. Terror cells and outlaw regimes building weapons of mass destruction are different faces of the same evil," Bush said.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at Britain's Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, said both sides of the debate have points worth considering, but that both are dabbling in intellectual deception. He told RFE/RL he thinks it's a mistake to draw a direct link between Iraq and terrorism, as the Bush administration does, particularly since it's not clear that Iraq is a sponsor of international terrorism. "Washington is trying to 'square the circle' [by relating] going to war in Iraq, WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and trying to make a link to terrorism. I think it's unfortunate because the linkages may exist between certain individuals in the Iraqi regime and Al-Qaeda individuals, [but it's not clear that any direct links exist]."

He said Washington is trying to drum up support for war and is using all arguments at its disposal. "Maybe in the public mind or in the public perception it may be useful [to make the link between Saddam Hussein and international terrorism]. But in reality, the grounds for that are not strong enough to precipitate war," Ranstorp said.

Some say the U.S. administration is focusing on Saddam to divert public attention from the unsuccessful effort to capture Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden's name is seldom heard these days in public comments in Washington. At press briefings, the administration prefers to focus on successes achieved so far in disrupting Al-Qaeda's funding and planning networks.

Ranstorp said bin Laden is a sore spot for the American president -- and one that will only become more painful as U.S. elections approach in 2004. "To bring [Osama bin Laden's] head on a platter to President Bush was unrealistic in the short term. It may be more likely that he may die a natural death before we catch him. But certainly there is a greater urgency, I think, possibly for electoral reasons, for the United States or for the intelligence community to capture him before the forthcoming U.S. elections [in 2004]."

Ranstorp said critics of war in Iraq may be hiding their true motives, however. He said that, for one, any conflict in Iraq is not likely to channel resources away from the war on terrorism, calling this idea "complete nonsense." He said the "secret war, the secret intelligence war, the law-enforcement war, the people dedicated to fighting this war, are still tasked to do what they do."

He added that visions of an apocalyptic clash of civilizations are premature in that no one can predict how the war will be received -- how it "plays out" -- among Muslims. He says any war in Iraq would offer opportunities as well as risks. "Certainly, of course, [war in Iraq] will complicate the situation. But I think you have to look at this like the Chinese symbol for crisis -- it means danger and opportunity. It all depends on how this plays out. The 'Arab street' is not one monolithic voice or force," Ranstorp said.

Ranstorp said the critics have a point that, over the long term, the threat from terrorism dwarfs the dangers posed by Saddam. He cites a recent study that put the economic costs of one hypothetical "dirty" radiation bomb detonated in New York at some $53 billion -- in other words, about the total estimated cost to the U.S. of fighting a war in Iraq.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.