Iraq, Al Qaeda a ‘Lethal’ Combo, U.S. Says

Times Staff Writers

The United States on Wednesday laid out in great detail its case linking Iraq to the Al Qaeda network, saying that Saddam Hussein developed a newfound respect for the terrorist organization after admiring its success in bombing two U.S. embassies in Africa and an American warship.

Though some U.S. and European counter-terrorism experts have insisted that the devoutly fundamentalist Al Qaeda and the secular government in Iraq are hostile to each other, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in his speech to the United Nations that the two have enjoyed a discreet relationship for at least a decade, fueled by a shared opposition to the United States.

“Ambition and hatred are enough to bring Iraq and Al Qaeda together,” Powell said.

In recent months, that alliance has intensified to the point where Iraq -- after providing Al Qaeda members with training on the development of chemical weapons -- allowed a top Al Qaeda chemical weapons expert and two dozen of his associates to operate with impunity within its borders, Powell said.

From its base in Iraq, Powell said, Abu Musab Zarqawi and his Al Qaeda cell have become affiliated with Ansar al-Islam, a Taliban-style religious group, and plotted the assassination of a U.S. aid worker in Jordan.

Sending a pointed message to skeptics in France and other European countries, Powell used a chart to trace the alleged ties linking the Iraqi regime, Zarqawi and people arrested recently in Paris, London and Spain on suspicion of plotting attacks with cyanide gas and ricin, deadly poisons.

“Saddam was a supporter of terrorism long before these terrorist networks had a name, and this support continues,” Powell said. “The nexus of poisons and terror is new; the nexus of Iraq and terror is old. The combination is lethal.”

Iraqi officials and Ansar al-Islam leaders immediately denied the accusations, saying in separate news conferences that Powell was fabricating any links between them and Al Qaeda.

“Neither I nor anybody in our group has ever seen or met” Zarqawi, Ansar al-Islam leader Mullah Krekar told reporters in Norway, where he lives. He also denied that Hussein had any influence on the group, calling the Iraqi president “an enemy of me and my people.”

In his speech, Powell said such denials were to be expected and that they were “simply not credible.”

Several U.S. counter-terrorism authorities and policy analysts said Powell’s presentation successfully linked Iraq and Al Qaeda without compromising classified details of the ongoing effort to prove such ties.

“He certainly made a strong case that we are dealing with a web of deceit and that Saddam has evil intent, and he did it in a very forceful and yet very balanced way,” said Raphael Perl, an international terrorism specialist with the Congressional Research Service, which assists Congress in developing policy.

Others said privately that Powell did not definitively settle the debate among U.S. counter-terrorism and law enforcement officials about whether Hussein’s regime is working with Al Qaeda to launch attacks.

In particular, officials from several U.S. allies in Europe said they were less than convinced that Powell had definitively linked Hussein himself to Al Qaeda, and certainly not enough to push them into supporting a U.S.-led war.

“I don’t think there is much to it,” one high-ranking French law enforcement official said Wednesday night.

Although that official and other European counter-terrorism officials said they had not yet had a chance to closely examine Powell’s speech, they flatly disagreed with the theory that Iraq and Al Qaeda are allies. And they said they do not believe that dozens of suspected North African terrorism suspects recently arrested in Paris, London and northern Spain were part of a network that is sheltered and supported by Baghdad.

Roland Jacquard, a French terrorism expert and author of a recent book titled “Al Qaeda’s Secret Archives,” said he thought that although Powell made a strong presentation, it would not resolve the fundamental dispute between U.S. and European counter-terrorism agencies about Iraq.

“The French position is that even if you can link Al Qaeda to Iraq, you can link it to many other Arab countries [and] that does not mean Al Qaeda is working with Saddam Hussein,” he said. “The Americans say that if there is an Al Qaeda presence in Iraq, it means necessarily that they are allies.”

In recent months, top European law enforcement officials have argued that Al Qaeda’s ties to Iraq are weaker than its ties to U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. And they warn that a war on Iraq could weaken the international campaign against Al Qaeda and worsen, not reduce, the threat of Islamic terrorism.

In the past, U.S. officials have said little publicly about Zarqawi, a Palestinian who was born in Jordan, or his alleged ties to Ansar al-Islam.

The group operates in ethnic-Kurd-controlled northern Iraq, which raises significant questions about its alleged ties to the Iraqi regime. Some counter-terrorism authorities in the U.S. and Europe suggest that the group works in opposition to Hussein’s regime and that by supporting it, Zarqawi and his terrorist cell are enemies of the Iraqi dictator.

Powell, however, described the linkages among Al Qaeda, Zarqawi and Iraq as indisputable and long-standing.

No one disputes that, initially, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Hussein were enemies of sorts.

In 1990, Bin Laden reportedly offered to send his fighters, based in Afghanistan, to help expel Hussein from Kuwait after his forces invaded the tiny nation. The Saudi government instead opted to let the U.S. use Saudi Arabia as a staging area to attack the invading Iraqi troops, angering Bin Laden and helping lay the groundwork for his crusade to expel the U.S. presence from Saudi soil, which he considers holy land.

But Powell gave this detailed explanation of the relationship between Hussein and Al Qaeda:

When Bin Laden was based in Sudan in the early 1990s, he reached an understanding with Hussein that Al Qaeda would no longer support acts of terrorism against Baghdad. Iraq and Al Qaeda soon forged alliances through “secret high-level intelligence service contacts,” meeting at least eight times at very senior levels.

In 1996, Bin Laden met directly with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, and later met the director of the Iraqi intelligence service.

“Saddam became more interested as he saw Al Qaeda’s appalling attacks,” including the embassy bombings, which killed at least 224 people in 1998. “Saddam was also impressed by Al Qaeda’s attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000.”

One senior Al Qaeda terrorist who has been captured has told authorities that Bin Laden thought Al Qaeda chemical weapons labs weren’t capable of manufacturing enough chemical and biological agents.

“They needed to go somewhere else; they had to look outside of Afghanistan for help,” Powell said. “Where did they go, where did they look? They went to Iraq.”

Iraq offered chemical or biological weapons training for two Al Qaeda associates, beginning in December 2000. One Al Qaeda operative was sent to Iraq several times between 1997 and 2000 for help in acquiring poisons and gases.

By 2000, Zarqawi, 36, returned to Afghanistan and oversaw a terrorist training camp that specialized in the manufacture of poisons. When Al Qaeda and the Taliban were routed in Afghanistan, an Al Qaeda agent -- working within Ansar al-Islam -- offered the Zarqawi network haven in northeastern Iraq, where it set up a poison and explosives training camp.

In May 2002, Zarqawi traveled to Baghdad for medical treatment and stayed for two months. Nearly two dozen followers went as well, establishing a base of operations.

From there, the Al Qaeda cell has been coordinating the movement of people, money and supplies into and throughout Iraq for more than eight months. Zarqawi also has been directing his network in the Middle East, Europe and beyond, Powell said.

U.S. authorities believe that Zarqawi and his associates are behind the assassination of Laurence Foley, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s office in Jordan, in October. And Zarqawi and his network have plotted terrorist actions against countries including France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia, Powell said, adding that 116 operatives connected to Zarqawi’s global terrorist cell have been arrested.

“Iraqi officials protest that they are not aware of the whereabouts of Zarqawi or of any of his associates,” Powell said, even though U.S. officials asked a friendly ally in the region to intervene and ask Iraq to extradite Zarqawi after providing information about him and his close associates.

“This service contacted Iraqi officials twice, and we passed details that should have made it easy to find Zarqawi. The network remains in Baghdad; Zarqawi still remains at large to come and go.”

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Meyer reported from Washington and Rotella from Paris.