The fall of Baghdad has produced new evidence to buttress the Bush administration’s prewar contention that Saddam Hussein’s regime and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda had a long history of contacts.
The most conclusive evidence comes in a highly detailed list of intelligence reports revealed last month in the Weekly Standard. Senior Iraqis were said to have traveled to Sudan in the mid-1990s to teach bin Laden’s operatives how to make sophisticated truck bombs.
Terrorists subsequently used such bombs to hit targets in Saudi Arabia and at two U.S. embassies in Africa.
The new intelligence reports are at odds with a June report by the United Nations’ terrorism committee, which said it had found no links between Iraq and al Qaeda.
President Bush justified, in part, toppling Saddam on the grounds he aided terror groups. Mr. Bush argued that a nexus between terrorists and a country such as Iraq that has produced and used weapons of mass destruction (WMD) could one day result in a catastrophic attack on America.
“We do have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared in September 2002 when he and Gen. Tommy Franks were making war plans.
A month later, CIA Director George J. Tenet sent a letter to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence saying new evidence of the al Qaeda-Saddam relationship was “evolving.”
He wrote: “We have solid reporting of senior-level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade. … We have credible reporting that al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities.”
Soon after the war, the picture began to become clearer. The U.S. collected considerable evidence that Abu Musaab Zarqawi, a top al Qaeda planner who fled Afghanistan as the Taliban regime was ousted, moved in and out of Iraq and met with officials in Baghdad.
Saddam never moved against a huge al Qaeda presence on his own territory — the headquarters of Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq. This radical Kurdish group has ties to al Qaeda officials in Afghanistan. The U.S. smashed the camp in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Abu Abbas, the Palestinian terrorist wanted by the United States and Italy, lived a comfortable life in Baghdad under Saddam’s regime. Members of his gang took over the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and shot Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish American, and pushed him and his wheelchair overboard. U.S. commandos captured Abu Abbas shortly after Baghdad fell.
But the most detailed picture of the Baghdad-al Qaeda nexus comes in a letter, held as top secret, that was leaked to the Weekly Standard. The letter was signed by Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, and sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee in response to its questions.
Mr. Feith had testified before the Senate committee in closed session last July. The committee’s chairman and vice chairman, Sens. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, and John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, asked Mr. Feith to supply the intelligence reports on which his testimony was based.
Mr. Feith responded in September with the letter listing 50 intelligence reports from the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.