- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 20, 2004

The September 11 commission’s conclusion that no prewar “collaborative relationship” between Iraq and al Qaeda terrorists existed seems, in my opinion, terribly irrelevant right now.

The fact is that intelligence findings have pointed to numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein’s agents and al Qaeda figures. Moreover, al Qaeda terrorist figures were seen traveling in and out of Baghdad in the years and months before the United States charged into Iraq and toppled Saddam.

Indeed, the blue-ribbon commission’s point looked insignificant and contradictory. Its staff report last week pointed to contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden’s move into Afghanistan in 1996. But then it added that such contacts “do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship.”

The hedge words “do not appear” hardly describe a concrete statement of fact. Rather, it sounds like they are saying “we can’t really know for sure.” Besides, how is a “collaborative relationship” different from known contacts with Saddam’s henchmen at other levels? The report doesn’t clarify.

Not surprisingly, John Kerry’s campaign team and his Democratic supporters jumped all over the report’s finding, saying it proved that one of the central justifications for President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq — to get the al Qaeda terrorists — was untrue.

Well, not exactly. Even Mr. Kerry has said in the past, when he was all for bringing down Saddam’s regime and voted to go to war to do so, that the Iraqi dictator “supported and harbored terrorist groups.”

But other evidence was offered last week that raised deeper questions about the veracity of the panel’s conclusion. Commission member Fred Fielding, for one, wasn’t buying the no “collaborative relationship” finding. He recalled a sentence in the 2001 indictment of the al Qaeda terrorists who were involved in the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. That sentence said that bin Laden’s al Qaeda operatives and Iraq entered into a clear understanding about how they could work together.

As reported in the media, CIA Director George Tenet said in 2002 that “we have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade.” He added that “credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression.”

The issue is not whether Iraq or Saddam’s regime had any complicity in the September 11 attacks. There is no evidence of that, yet. The larger point in the war on terrorism is that al Qaeda terrorists had numerous contacts with the Saddam’s regime, traveled to and lived in Iraq, and often used it as a base of operations.

“At various times, al Qaeda people came through Baghdad and in some cases resided there,” said David Kay who headed the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group that searched for weapons of mass destruction.

Knowing all of this, it was prudent for Mr. Bush to make Iraq his second target in the war against terrorism, Mr. Kay told NBC’s Matt Lauer earlier this year. Iraq “was far more dangerous than even we thought it was before the war. It was a country that had the capability in weapons of mass destruction areas and in which terrorists, like ants to honey, were going after it.”

Americans seem to agree. A poll conducted in April by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes found that 57 percent of Americans think Iraq was helping al Qaeda before the war. Subsequent polls have produced similar findings.

But the more relevant question in this election-year debate over Iraq is not where the terrorists were before the Iraq war, but where are they now?

The answer to this question was inadvertently provided last week by one of Mr. Kerry’s top national security advisers, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, in a conference call with reporters here.

“Are there Al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq today? The answer is absolutely yes,” said the former ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I would not be surprised if lieutenants of Osama bin Laden were part of that.”

The former Democratic presidential candidate also foolishly said that by going to war in Iraq, Mr. Bush was to blame for the terrorists swarming into that country — an absurd position that even Democrats could not buy into. He failed to win a single primary.

The point is that we are in a war against a deadly, determined enemy that has made Iraq one of the major battlefields in that war. We either defeat them over there, or we end up fighting them here.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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