Saddam Hussein "always had links with international terrorist organizations."
On the face of it, this is not a controversial statement. It comes from a CNN interview of Iyad Allawi, recently chosen as the interim prime minister of Iraq. Allawi expanded on this assessment in a December 31, 2003, interview with CNN's Bill Hemmer, when he estimated that more than 1,000 al Qaeda terrorists were operating in Iraq. But his more interesting comment came moments later. The al Qaeda fighters, he said:
were present in Iraq, they came and they were active in Iraq before the war of liberation. They were inflicting a lot of problems on the--and inflaming the situation in northern Iraq, in Iraq Kurdistan. They killed once about a year and a half ago 42 worshipers in one of the mosques in Harachi [ph] in a very ugly way.
Again, on the surface, this was not a particularly revealing statement. After all, Colin Powell told the United Nations Security Council that al Qaeda was operating in Iraq--almost certainly with the knowledge and approval of the Iraqi regime--before the war. CIA Director George Tenet has testified to the presence of al Qaeda in Iraq on several occasions. Allawi went on:
Those people have had the backing of Saddam prior to liberation, and they remained in Iraq after the collapse, and after the vacuum was created. After the way, they remained in Iraq. Many joined them since then.
Allawi's declaration that the Iraqi regime supported al Qaeda terrorists before the war in Iraq is intriguing not because of the claim itself, but because of the man making it. Allawi for years ran an Iraqi exile group called the Iraqi National Accord. In recent years, he was the Iraqi exile closest to the CIA. And although George Tenet has spoken repeatedly about the prewar Iraq-al Qaeda connection, he has been at odds with many in the bureaucracy beneath him.
Allawi's claims about the Iraq-al Qaeda connection--claims he has made for several years--have not always been solid. In December, Allawi provided journalists with a document indicating that September 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta trained in Iraq weeks before the 9/11 hijackings. That same three-page document also claimed that Iraq had--as President Bush claimed in his State of the Union Address--sought uranium from Niger. The report was a bit too politically convenient and was quickly dismissed as a forgery.
But Allawi isn't the only prominent member of the new Iraqi government to have suggested Iraq-al Qaeda connections. His deputy, Barham Salih, has also repeatedly alleged that Saddam's regime supported Ansar al Islam, al Qaeda-linked Islamists in Kurdistan. "Yes, they hate each other, but they're very utilitarian," said Salih. "Saddam Hussein, a secular infidel to many jihadists, had no problem giving money to Hamas. This debate [about whether Saddam worked with al Qaeda] is stupid. The proof is there."
ABC News' outstanding Pentagon reporter, Martha Raddatz, also reported on the Iraq-al Qaeda connection last week. But her May 25, 2004, report on Abu Musab al Zarqawi, an al Qaeda associate who joined forces with Ansar al Islam terrorists, buried an important detail. "In late 2002, officials say, Zarqawi began establishing sleeper cells in Baghdad and acquiring weapons from Iraqi Intelligence officials." (emphasis added).