The Pentagon is collecting evidence of “linkage” between Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization and other international terror groups to bolster its case for attacking Iraq as part of the war on terrorism, Bush administration officials say.
The Pentagon set up a secret unit shortly after September 11 to scan years of highly classified intelligence reports to find links between groups supported by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.
The project officers are also examining whether Iraqi business fronts for the country’s intelligence service have ties to bin Laden. Sources say the CIA has electronically transferred intelligence data on various groups to the Pentagon.
Opponents of striking Iraq say there is no evidence linking Saddam to the September 11 attacks on America. Thus, the United States would be hard-pressed to justify an assault to oust Saddam in the same way it removed the Taliban in Afghanistan, say critics, including some European allies.
But if the Pentagon project can find operational links between terror groups, proponents of attacking Iraq could cite the need to remove a regime such as Saddam’s as part of the president’s goal to destroy al Qaeda. The bin Laden-led group is blamed for the September 11 hijacked-airliner attacks that killed more than 3,000 people.
Officials said the Pentagon investigation of “linkage” already is turning up ties between radical groups in the Middle East who are supported by Saddam and al Qaeda operatives.
But the study itself is stirring debate inside the administration because it goes against the intelligence community’s long-held contention that most terror groups work independently of each other.
Said one administration official, “There is a looming battle between the Pentagon and State and CIA over the issue of how elaborate the linkages are among terrorist organization and between terror organizations and states.”
The purpose of the Pentagon project is not just to compile a report, one administration official said, but also to “improve the intelligence we have and the analysis we have on these networks.”
Defense sources say CIA Director George J. Tenet and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell are opposed to immediate military action against Saddam. Mr. Tenet is said to want a year or more to foment a coup in Baghdad or in some other way destabilize the hard-line regime.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is widely reported to be the administration’s leading hawk when it comes to ousting Saddam and ushering in a more moderate government. He and other Pentagon officials are said to argue that the United States cannot totally win the war on terrorism if it leaves Saddam in power.
Saddam is known to possess chemical and biological weapons, and has moved his nuclear-weapons development facilities deeper underground to escape U.S. bombings. The Pentagon officials believe that these weapons eventually will be used against the United States, possibly through terrorist surrogates.
Iraq is one of seven countries designated by the U.S. State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism. But its annual report, “Patterns of Global Terrorism 2000,” does not list al Qaeda as one of the groups Baghdad supports.
The report says Iraq “continued to provide safe haven and support to a variety of Palestinian rejectionist groups” an apparent reference to such terror groups as Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad.” The report also notes Saddam plotted to assassinate former President Bush during a 1993 trip to Kuwait.
One administration source said the Pentagon study “is trying to show that Iraq interacts with al Qaeda. The connections may be more run through business fronts than through the government. Iraqi intelligence runs a lot of business fronts.”
The official added: “You just have to look at the way al Qaeda has developed over the years, even before the 11th. It is well organized and has had state sponsors through Afghanistan and Pakistan through the ISI.”
The ISI is Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency. It helped put the Taliban in power in 1996 and is believed to have aided al Qaeda. In fact, the State Department’s report on terrorism suggested that Pakistan could become the eighth country designated as a state sponsor.
Since the report was issued and al Qaeda struck America, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, sharply reversed course under intense U.S. pressure.
A growing number of lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, say the administration must dispose of Saddam before he develops nuclear weapons.
President Bush has hinted that he will go to war with Baghdad if it persists in refusing to allow independent weapons inspectors back inside the country.
“Next up: Baghdad,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, told sailors on the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is launching warplanes in the Afghanistan campaign.
Senior Bush administration officials have suggested recently that they want to clear out al Qaeda cells and allied terror groups in other countries before making a decision on attacking Iraq.