US Hardliners search for a Saddam connection

Gulf States Newsletter (GSN)- Middle East Insider, Issue 9, September 2001.

President Saddam Hussein risks being hoist by his own pétard. Having been virtually alone worldwide in celebrating the 11 September attacks on the U.S.A., Iraq appears increasingly at risk of being targeted in the anti-terrorism war declared by President George W. Bush—even in the absence of concrete evidence linking Baghdad to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

The failure of efforts by Washington doves such as Secretary of State Colin Powell to seduce Iraq into accepting slimmed down “smart sanctions” has handed the initiative to Administration hardliners such as Vice President Dick Cheney.

Baghdad’s continued rejection of United Nations Security Council proposals for the overhaul of sanctions, to allow normal civil trade between Iraq and the outside world, had already played into the hands of U.S. conservatives who were keen to see a more aggressively interventionist American policy. Last week’s outrage has given more encouragement to those who feel outright confrontation is the only way to deal with Saddam Hussein.

So far, no firm evidence has emerged linking Iraq to last week’s attacks and evidence of contacts between Saddam’s regime and the Islamic militant Osama Bin Laden seem tenuous at best. But recent days have seen a string of media articles and comments, particularly from conservative commentators or policy thinkers, in effect arguing that Saddam must in some way be connected.

Hawks see Al-Qaeda connections

U.S. Iraq-watcher Laurie Mylroie has been particularly in evidence. The author of Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War Against America (American Enterprise Institute, 2000) has focused on possible connections between Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network and Sudanese intelligence, which in 1991 invited the Saudi-born Islamist to move to Khartoum.

Such links suggest that Islamist terrorism is not such a “stateless” phenomenon as is widely thought, Mylroie argues. If so, this would provide a much more conventional target for U.S. forces.

In an article published in the Wall Street Journal on 13 September, she argued as follows: “Al-Qaeda’s demonstrated ties to Sudanese intelligence raise another question. Iraq has close ties to Sudan. Sudan supported Iraq during the Gulf War and subsequently established Khartoum as a major centre for Iraqi intelligence. Abd Al-Samad Al-Taish, a highly placed Iraqi intelligence agent, was Iraq’s Ambassador to Khartoum until the summer of 1998. Al-Taish arrived in Khartoum in July 1991 with 35 other intelligence officers to establish a base for Iraqi operations in the wake of the upheaval wrought by the Gulf War.”

She went on to ask if Al-Qaeda was also in contact with Iraqi intelligence while it was based in Khartoum. Her answer—reflecting U.S. conservative sentiments—can be distilled down to a ‘possibly‘.

The 1998 African embassy attacks came during a particularly tense stand-off between Iraq and Unscom. If so, the Mylroie thesis goes, Bill Clinton’s Administration did not want to investigate, as it ran counter to its policy interests.

…suggesting a casus belli

Non-attributable reports from Washington have suggested that elements of the U.S. policy machine are actively contemplating a direct intervention against Sadaam.

Intelligence sources are supposed to have evidence that Iraqi intelligence had recently been financing Al-Qaeda networks.

London weekly The Sunday Times on 16 September reported: “A Bush adviser said Iraqi targets were also being considered for bombing.” It noted—as have many media—that Saddam rewarded Palestinian suicide bombers’ families and claimed: “His officials have also held meetings with associates of Bin Laden, who is believed to use Baghdad’s banking network.”

One unsubstantiated report said that Iraqi intelligence officers had met Al-Qaeda representatives and handed over £2.7 million ($3.8 million) in funding. If proven, such claims—more of which are discussed below—would provide Washington with a casus belli to strike Iraq hard—presumably hitting the Republican Guard, Presidential family and other targets that George Bush Snr.’s forces missed in 1991.

The U.S.A.’s closest allies are arguing for caution—with the U.K. set to play an important role in tempering Washington’s response. Washington is unlikely to listen hard to France, Russia or China on this.

But at least, as of 18 September, the die had not yet been cast. As in the argument over smart sanctions—when Washington hawks were aggrieved at Colin Powell’s success in getting Presidential endorsement for reform—an internal hawks-versus-doves tussle over policy is emerging into the public arena, through interview comments, background briefings to reporters and op-ed media pieces.

Evidence is thin and European governments with a close eye on Baghdad remain sceptical of suggestions that Saddam may have been involved in assisting last week’s suicide hijackers. They cite ideological reasons—Iraq’s secular Baathism has always been deeply opposed to the involvement of fundamentalist Islam in politics—and practical self-interest.

With regional support for sanctions already weak and Russian objections derailing any imposed “smart sanctions” plan, Iraq was looking increasingly comfortable.

Iraq’s comfort zone

Despite concern that it was running low on oilfield maintenance supplies, the regime has been getting substantial revenues from smuggling.

Latterly it had secured at least the partial reopening of an export pipeline through Syria, further undermining attempts to police sales of crude.

With his current strategy working well, it is hard to see why Saddam would get involved with a terror attack that risked bringing massive U.S. military retaliation on his head.

The invasions of Iran and Kuwait show Saddam has a history of rash aggressive international actions, but in both those cases he appeared genuinely to believe that Iraqi force would prevail, or would at least be greeted with grudging acquiescence.

He could have been under no such illusions about bombing key buildings at the heart of the two U.S.A.’s economic and political capitals.

A resort to provocative mass terrorism would suggest that Iraq had retreated towards a Doomsday mentality—threatening the use of weapons of mass destruction in the so-called “Sampson option”—which does not concur with the mood in Baghdad, where politics is more about elite power struggles.

Saddam is all too willing to lend bombastic media support to those attacking the U.S.A. or Israel—for example, in trying to acquire some popular credit for the Palestinian intifada—his “words louder than actions” style is hardly consonant with the murderous aggression of the W.T.C. attack.

French experts believe insufficient weight is given to the importance of Baathist secular ideology in Iraq’s outlook. Militant Islam has generally been seen as a threat to the Iraqi state, not a tool; Saddam has never had qualms about crushing Shia unrest with total ruthlessness, even damaging holy cities in the process.

A Thin ‘Body Of Evidence’

There are strong signs that U.S. hawks see the present situation as an opportunity to strike hard at Saddam Hussein. Critics of the present tough sanctions such as France, Russia and humanitarian organisations will now find a less sympathetic hearing for their concerns.

Non-attributable stories have begun to surface in the media suggesting that Iraq has been providing funding, logistical support and advanced weapons training to Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda organisation.

Laura Mylroie, in her book Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War Against America, reports that the late director of the F.B.I.’s New York James Fox, was persuaded by circumstantial evidence that Iraq provided support, and perhaps even co-ordination, to militants who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993.

Mylroie cites three other attacks against the U.S.A. with evidence of some connection to Saddam.

Former C.I.A. director James Woolsey also referred to the F.B.I.’s theory that Iraqi agents were involved in the 1993 W.T.C. attack. He has suggested that a state “like the Iraqi government” may be providing more than just a safe haven for Bin Laden.

Like Mylroie, Woolsey argues that the Clinton Administration ignored evidence of state-sponsored terrorism; he fears the focus on Bin Laden may again distract from investigation of government support for last week’s attacks. But despite such indications of contact or opportunities for contact between Bin Laden and the Iraqis, clear evidence of any Baghdad link has yet to emerge.

Europe must provide a counter-weight

Whether that will stop Washington’s hardliners pressing for an all-out counter-strike against Iraq is another matter.

What might act as a restraint—especially if Secretary of State Colin Powell’s concerns carry weigh in the Bush team’s policy planning—would be clear evidence of deep European, N.A.T.O. and especially U.K. misgivings about hitting Saddam. Longer term, the U.S.A. still has to find a means to reposition itself at the centre of international opinion on sanctions.

Precisely because a framework for dealing with that issue already exists, in the U.N. Security Council, there could be resistance from U.S. allies for any step radically outside that process—unless there is categoric evidence linking Iraq to the attacks.

Another factor that could militate against a heavy assault on Saddam—unless his involvement in last week’s massacres is clearly proven—is the mood among U.S. allies in the Gulf and concerns about the internal stability of Saudi Arabia and perhaps Jordan.

Even if the Saudis refused to allow their bases to be used for a new assault on Iraq, public alienation from the U.S.A.—and the Saudi leadership’s own anger —would increase if Baghdad and Basra were bombed again. Moreover, even the most “surgical” of attacks would probably lead to civilian deaths. At a time when the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon seems determined to pursue repressive confrontation with the Palestinians, the tide of resentment against a perceived American or western assault on vulnerable Muslim civilians across the Middle East could prove highly destabilising and dangerous for U.S. interests.

Oil market considerations may also come into play. With Saudi Arabia, the main producer, Iran and Iraq (holder of the world’s second largest reserves) concentrated in one region, many Western governments will be opposed to action that gratuitously ratchets up the tension and instability.

The message to George W. Bush from Gulf and European allies may well be: Cool It. Saddam Hussein must fervently hope this approach works.

Download the complete Middle East Insider, Issue 9, September 2001 pdf

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