July 3, 2004 | The Miami Herald

Report Doesn’t Deny Link

Authored by Andrew Apostolou 

The well-researched initial findings of the 9/11 Commission have been predictably misconstrued. The most common distortion is that the commission established that there was no connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The New York Times on June 17 wrote that “there was no link between Iraq and al Qaeda. No serious intelligence analyst believed the connection existed.''

Wrong. Rather, the commission, along with the British and U.S. governments, reported contacts between Hussein's regime and al Qaeda but no evidence of Iraqi responsibility for the 9/11 atrocities.

We know that there was a dialogue between al Qaeda and Hussein's regime. What we do not know is the nature of the relationship, particularly before 9/11.

Osama bin Laden was initially hostile to Hussein. According to the commission, he curbed his support for Hussein's opponents after pressure from the Sudanese government, which was then hosting him — a government that apparently facilitated a meeting be tween al Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence.

We also know that bin Laden took up Hussein's cause. In his Feb. 23, 1998, fatwa declaring ''Jihad against Jews and crusaders,'' bin Laden's primary grievance was supposed U.S. and Western aggression against Iraq. Just days later, according to documents found by The Daily Telegraph in 2003, a meeting occurred in Baghdad between Iraqi intelligence and an al Qaeda envoy.

Interrogations of captured Iraqi intelligence officers may provide a better understanding of what was said in these meetings. To date, however, the Iraqis have not been forthcoming, and little solid has emerged from the documents.

More interesting, however, were the post-9/11 connections between Iraq and al Qaeda. It made no sense for Hussein to be involved in the 9/11 plot. U.N. sanctions were crumbling. He had successfully sent the U.N. inspectors packing. The new, weaker U.N. inspection regime was not operating. Hussein and his sons had subverted the U.N. Oil for Food program, turning it into a source of graft for their friends.

After 9/11, with bin Laden's men on the run, Iraq opened its doors to al Qaeda fugitives. It was no great leap for Hussein's agents to talk to al Qaeda or for his hospitals in 2002 to treat Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an al Qaeda-linked terrorist. The ties forged after 9/11 were so good that to this day the remnants of Hussein's regime and al Qaeda are jointly attacking U.S. forces in Iraq.

The debate over who met whom in Prague has distracted attention from Hussein's record as a terror master.

Indeed, when it came to terrorism, Hussein was a believer in diversity, that is the ideological diversity of his terrorist clients. His Arab nationalist regime supported Syrian Islamists, Kurdish nationalists from Turkey, the anti-Semitic Abu Nidal group and the Mujahideen-e Khalq of Iran, who blend Maoism and Islamism. And Hussein used to send $25,000 to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. As Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst, said to the 9/11 Commission, “Iraq under Saddam was a major state sponsor of international terrorism.''

Hussein's greater threat

Hussein's support for terrorism was a violation of his international obligations. One demand of the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire, enshrined in U.N. Security Council Resolution 687, was that Iraq “will not commit or support any act of international terrorism or allow any organization directed toward commission of such acts to operate within its territory and to condemn unequivocally and renounce all acts, methods and practices of terrorism.''

This, Iraq failed to do.

Based on the available evidence, it is as wrong to claim that there was no connection between Hussein and al Qaeda as it is to claim that Iraq was involved in 9/11. Instead of focusing exclusively on Hussein's al Qaeda ties, we should remember the greater terrorist threat that Hussein's Iraq posed.

Andrew Apostolou is director of research for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.