- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 (UPI) — President Bush said Tuesday that the United States will make a public case next week that Iraq is not only deceiving weapons inspectors but maintaining links to terrorists. But how clear-cut a case can be made?

In his annual State of the Union address to Congress, Bush said he would send Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations Feb. 5 to "present information and intelligence about Iraq's illegal weapons programs; its attempts to hide those weapons from inspectors; and its links to terrorist groups."

If the president is really intent to demonstrate that Iraq does have a link to Osama bin Laden's al Qaida network, he need look no further than Oslo, Norway. That is where the leader of a Kurdish Islamic organization known as Ansar al Islam now resides after obtaining asylum in the country earlier this year following four months of detention and questioning in the Netherlands.

Najm al-Din Faraj Ahmad, also known as Mullah Krekar, is — according to officials of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in northern Iraq and administration hawks — a terrorist with ties to al Qaida; a man who has acquired chemical weapons; and who has received funding from Iraq and logistical support from elements in the Iranian intelligence service. Krekar himself denied these allegations this month at a news conference in Norway. But while hawks — especially in the Pentagon — believe Krekar is a "smoking gun" linking Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, the CIA is skeptical about his alleged ties to Baghdad. One U.S. official sympathetic to that view told United Press International Tuesday, "There is no evidence that Saddam and his regime are directly financing and arming Ansar al Islam."

These sharp divisions perfectly illustrate one of the main problems with sharing intelligence with the public on the ties between Iraq and al Qaida: not every one agrees that they exist.

If you believe the hawks, Krekar meets the criteria of what Bush described in his State of the Union address as the gravest threat posed by rogue regimes. "These regimes could use such weapons for blackmail, terror, and mass murder. They could also give or sell those weapons to their terrorist allies, who would use them without the least hesitation," he said.

And yet, the State Department does not appear disturbed that Krekar — under house arrest in Norway — is able to hold news conferences and communicate with members of his group in northern Iraq.

On Jan. 15, the same day Secretary of State Colin Powell raised the topic of Krekar's recent arrival in Norway with the Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Peterson, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher would only say the United States had "an interest" in him. On Tuesday, the State Department guidance added that the United States would not seek his extradition from Norway because he is not wanted on criminal charges in this country.

But this is not how others in the administration see it.

The main evidence against Krekar revolves around the role of Abu Wa'il, an al Qaida money man who has also provided some funding to Ansar al Islam and is believed by the hawks and their allies to be on Saddam's payroll. Jonathan Schanzer, an analyst with the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in a paper this month that Kurdish authorities had found TNT made in Iraq in a recent raid on the group's headquarters. Qubad Talabani, the PUK's deputy chief of mission in Washington, told UPI Tuesday that there was no doubt about the financial links between Ansar al Islam and Saddam.

But critics of this theory point out that the PUK has an axe to grind with Ansar al Islam. This spring, Ansar attempted to assassinate Barham Salih, prime minister for the PUK. And the PUK's fighters have conducted numerous operations against the organization's stronghold in Biyara on the Iran-Iraq border. During these raids, PUK officials say they gathered evidence — including the testimony of captured Ansar personnel — documenting the group's links to the Iraqi regime.

Last year the PUK offered this evidence to the CIA, but Langley was initially not interested. However, two U.S. officials tell UPI that CIA men stationed in northern Iraq have recently taken the Kurds up on their offer, interviewing captured Ansar al Islam members in prison and checking out their positions in Biyara.

Ansar al Islam's links to al Qaida are less controversial. It is widely believed the organization was formed in August 2001 when Kurdish Islamic organizations traveled to Afghanistan to meet al Qaida leadership to form a new militia in northern Iraq. Press accounts have said that up to 30 al Qaida fighters from Afghanistan have joined Ansar al Islam.

How the Bush administration will navigate this issue will go a long way in determining how it intends to win over the international community in its plans to topple Saddam Hussein.

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