It is now well-established that President Bush's justifications for invading Iraq were thin and unsupported by real evidence at the time. CIA Director George Tenet, and Vice-President Dick Cheney, were responsible for failing to unearth sufficient evidence to justify the invasion; and Secretary of State Colin Powell was complicit with them in presenting to the U.N. evidence that in reality proved nothing. In addition, it is now clear that Vice-President Cheney rammed his opinion — that Saddam was a credible threat to America — down the throats of the CIA and all other opponents within the Administration. The Vice-President went so far as to dispatch his own staff members to CIA headquarters in Langley to bully analysts there into coughing up the evidence he needed.
Based upon this evidence, the Administration claimed that:
• Iraq had aided al-Qaeda in attacking America.
• Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.
• Iraq had weapons of mass destruction sufficient to be a threat to America.
We now know that all of these claims were false. Nevertheless, they were not outright lies: the Administration applied the wrong template to the evidence, and thus came up with the wrong conclusions. What was missing from this template was the fact that Iran had participated in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Had the evidence been examined in this light, the Administration might have acted differently.
Claim # 1: Iraq Aided al-Qaeda
Sometime during 1998, al-Qaeda began recruiting disaffected Muslim students in Germany to become suicide pilots. Hamburg was the perfect place for such recruiting:
Hamburg has a high concentration of Arab students, both graduate and undergraduate. Among them are many young men who have been separated from direct contact with their families for four to six years, sometimes more. Even among the best-adjusted of these boys, their first exposure to the liberal West, especially in free-wheeling Hamburg, can be an overwhelming shock. Deeply religious and conservative youngsters may develop a smoldering hatred for this environment, even while they benefit from its educational institutions. Such young men tend to congregate in local mosques. Here, in the company of fellow Muslims, they find relief and fellowship. Mohammad Atta was such a man. (Mohamed Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta. )
He was discovered in the Al Quds Mosque by a Syrian member of the Muslim Brotherhood named Mohammad Haydar Zammar. Under his tutelage, by 2000, Atta had agreed to become one of the 9/11 pilots. (Zammar also assisted in the recruitment of Ziad Jarrah as a pilot, and Ramzi Binalshibh as the coordinator of the attacks.) From 1998 through 2000, Zammar traveled to Iran to consult on the project with al-Qaeda. (Binalshibh also traveled frequently to Iran.)
Atta first entered America by flying from Prague in the Czech Republic in April, 2000. Then on April 8, 2001, he flew back to Prague. According to an unsubstantiated report, Atta met with Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir Al-Ani. Al-Ani was a member of the Iraqi foreign intelligence service, and was acting as vice-counsel to the Iraqi ambassador to the Czech Republic. (Two weeks later, Al-Ani was deported by the Czech authorities.)
Here the trail goes cold: thus far, no one has been able to say with certainty that this meeting was directly related to the attacks of 9/11. Therefore, the Administration’s guess that Iraq was involved in the attacks is not substantiated by the evidence.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss the Prague connection simply because it cannot be causally tied to 9/11: the story suggests that al-Qaeda had ready access to high-ranking government officials inside Saddam Hussein’s government. This is important, not because it implicates Saddam, but because it shows that even when Iraq was in the grip of an absolute dictator, al-Qaeda was able to operate within and through Iraq.
Unbeknownst to the Administration in Washington, there was a second and more sinister link between Iraq and al-Qaeda: In 1991, bin-Laden, a Saudi national, having been expelled by the Saudis some years earlier, took up residence in Sudan. Besides being a terrorist, bin Laden was a wealthy businessman: the eldest son of the Yemeni founder of Arabia’s biggest construction firm. As a contractor to the Sudanese government, bin Laden established numerous large industries; among them, the Al-Hijrah construction company and the Al-Shifa chemical works.
What is little known is that, sometime during the 1990s, bin Laden began to staff his companies with Iraqis. At least nine of these executives were al-Qaeda members. During this period, Al-Shifa began developing VX, a deadly nerve gas. Iraq supplied the chemical formulas used to manufacture it, probably through an Iraqi company, Samarra Drug Industries.
The Al-Shifa chemical works was destroyed by the United States on August 20, 1998; and the Administration’s claim that Iraq possessed significant quantities of chemical weapons has so far not been vindicated. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the Sudan connection simply because large quantities of VX were not found in Iraq. Like the Prague connection, what it shows is that al-Qaeda had ready access to powerful corporate officers inside Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Because al-Qaeda is now a branch of the Iranian government, quite likely, it is Iran, not Iraq, that has large stockpiles of VX gas.
More importantly, the Al-Shifa connection shows, once again, that even when Iraq was in Saddam’s iron grip, al-Qaeda was able to operate through Iraqi nationals and Iraqi corporations. The newly-elected government of Iraq is struggling to its feet. It has almost no army and few policemen. If al-Qaeda — an organization of a few hundred men — was able to accomplish so much when Iraq was strong, imagine what Iran — with a military of 768,000 troops — can do now that Iraq is weak.
Claim # 2: Zarqawi was the Link Between al-Qaeda and Saddam
In 1999, a Jordanian called Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a second-tier officer of al-Qaeda. (Zarqawi’s real name was Ahmed Fadil Nazzal al-Khalayleh. He was killed by Coalition forces on June 7, 2006.) Bin-Laden’s confidence in Zarqawi was based on Zarqawi’s management of al-Qaeda’s interests in Herat in western Afghanistan. Herat is near Mashhad, which is just inside the eastern border of Iran. By 1999, the Afghan Taliban government and Iran had agreed to open the Herat-Mashhad corridor to each other. This allowed al-Qaeda members to slip easily in and out of Afghanistan via Iran.
As September 11 approached, bin Laden knew he would need a fallback area into which al-Qaeda could retreat when the United States began its inevitable retaliation against him. He chose Iraqi Kurdistan, and dispatched Zarqawi to develop a corridor from Mashhad into northern Iraq.
Beginning in November, 2001, hundreds of al-Qaeda members left Afghanistan via the Herat-Mashhad corridor. The majority, including bin Laden, are still guests of the Iranians. Zarqawi stayed in Afghanistan. It took him almost a year to travel through Iran, Jordan, Syria, and finally back to Iraqi Kurdistan. One year later, when the United States invaded Iraq, Zarqawi’s branch of al-Qaeda was well-positioned to infiltrate central Iraq from its base in the north. By this time, he had 600 Arab fighters, mostly veterans of al-Qaeda who had used the Herat-Mashhad-Kurdistan pipeline he created.
However, there is no evidence that Zarqawi coordinated his efforts with Saddam Hussein. On the contrary, since the First Gulf War of 1990, all of Iraqi Kurdistan has been protected by Coalition troops from interference by Saddam. The Administration in Washington guessed wrongly about Zarqawi; but they weren’t altogether wrong in guessing that al-Qaeda was operating inside the borders of Iraq.
Claim # 3: Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction
“Weapons of mass destruction” is a catchphrase that means “chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.” President Bush and his Cabinet asserted that in 2003, Saddam Hussein had significant numbers of such armaments. Since the Administration also believed that Saddam had links to al-Qaeda, Washington concluded that Saddam could easily use these weapons against us by giving them to terrorists. As it turns out, the Administration was wrong on the details but right on the big picture.
• Saddam did, in fact, have weapons of mass destruction; but not many. What little he had are probably no longer in Iraq.
• Weapons of mass destruction are, indeed, in the hands of a dangerous regime that is likely to give them to terrorists; but the regime in question is Iran, not Iraq.
In 1991, David Kay discovered that Saddam had no less than three separate programs to develop nuclear weapons. The most advanced of these had been severely set back in 1981 by the Israelis when they bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor. U.N. economic sanctions imposed after the First Gulf War decimated Iraq’s economy, and with it, the other development programs. So, when the Second Gulf War began, if Saddam had nuclear bombs, they were few in number.
The number of such weapons matters. It does a country little good, for example, to possess only one atom bomb: once it has been used, the country is powerless to forestall a nuclear counterattack. Hence, even if Saddam had nuclear bombs in 2003, his ability to mount a serious attack was limited. Iran, on the other hand, was, in 2003, well on its way to possessing a stockpile of 25 nuclear warheads, and ballistic missiles to deliver them.
Since 2003, Coalition forces have been scouring Iraq for weapons of mass destruction. So far they have found none; but this is hardly surprising:
• First of all, just because we can’t find them doesn’t mean they’re not there. In any case…
• It took the United States six months of preparation before we could land troops in Iraq. Almost certainly, Saddam knew we were coming. He could have hidden his weapons inside Iraq or elsewhere.
• Even after the initial invasion, there was a period of chaos and looting in which the Baathists could have spirited away weapons without intervention by Coalition troops.
• During the First Gulf War, Saddam sent 24 of his French-built Mirage F1 fighter-bombers to his erstwhile enemy, Iran, for safekeeping. According to a credible expatriate Iranian source, when the Second Gulf War began, Saddam sent 40 percent of his weapons of mass destruction to Iran, and the rest to Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syria.
Here again, President Bush and his Cabinet — as in their allegation that Iraq had cooperated with al-Qaeda — were looking at good evidence with the wrong set of glasses. Had they seen the evidence in the proper context — that our real enemy was Iran, that Iran was cooperating with Saddam, that Syria was doing Iran’s bidding, and that Hezbollah was entirely under Iran’s control — they might have acted differently.