Commentary

Spinning Saddam’s Linkages

By David Isenberg
This article appeared on Counter Punch on April 22, 2008.

After prolonged bureaucratic labor the latest report of the Iraqi Perspectives Project (IPP) finally made it out to the larger world. Its primary conclusion, which has been making headlines since news of it was first reported March 10 by Warren Strobel of McClatchey Newspapers, is that an exhaustive review of more than 600,000 Iraqi documents and several thousand hours of audio and video footage, archived in a U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) database called Harmony, that were captured after the 2003 U.S. invasion, has found no evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime had any operational links with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network.

The IPP is a research effort conducted by United States Joint Forces Command (JFC) focusing on Operation Iraqi Freedom. Its latest study, titled “Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Iraqi Documents,” was produced by analysts at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded military think tank. The report is actually composed of five volumes: the first volume, 94 pages, lays out the overview and conclusions, and the remaining four volumes include about two thousand pages of captured Iraqi documents, declassified and translated into English.

Although the report was actually completed last November and officially released on March 13, the Pentagon declined to publish it online. Instead the Joint Forces Command said on its website that those interested could contact it for a CD containing the report. The full study is now posted on the Federation of American Scientists website.

Predictably, neoconservative publications such as the Weekly Standard have published selected portions of the report, claiming it reflects “widespread journalistic negligence” and does not reflect “strong evidence that links the regime of Saddam Hussein to regional and global terrorism.” To try and vindicate old Bush administration claims that there were links between Iraq and al-Qaeda the Standard noted, “Saddam supported groups that either associated directly with al Qaeda (such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led at one time by bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri) or that generally shared al Qaeda’s stated goals and objectives.”

But the study itself is far more nuanced. It says, in the second paragraph of the executive summary:

But the relationships between Iraq and the groups advocating radical pan-Islamic doctrines are much more complex. This study found no “smoking gun” (i.e., direct connection) between Saddam’s Iraq and al Qaeda. Saddam’s interest in, and support for, non-state actors was spread across a variety of revolutionary, liberation, nationalist, and Islamic terrorist organizations. Some in the regime recognized the potential high internal and external costs of maintaining relationships with radical Islamic groups, yet they concluded that in some cases, the benefits of association outweighed the risks.

The study does note on page 34 that Saddam Hussein’s regime was willing to co-opt or support organizations it knew to be part of al-Qaeda — as long as that organization’s near-term goals supported Saddam’s long-term vision. The report notes that from the beginning of his rise to power, one of Saddam’s major objectives was to shift the regional balance of power favorably toward Iraq. After the 1991 Gulf War, pursuing this objective “motivated Saddam and his regime to increase their cooperation with — and attempts to manipulate — Islamic fundamentalists and related terrorist organizations. Documents indicate that the regime’s use of terrorism was standard practice, although not always successful.”

The study’s primary conclusion should come as no surprise to any serious scholar of Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s regime was always relentless secular. The Baath party, after all, was founded (or co-founded) by a Christian, and its ideology was pan-Arab and nationalist, the opposite of the religious posture espoused by al-Qaeda.

The report does acknowledge that the Iraqi regime was involved in regional and international terrorist operations prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But it also acknowledges that “the predominant targets of Iraqi state terror operations were Iraqi citizens, both inside and outside of Iraq.”

The report notes that as of August 2006, only 15 percent of the captured documents have English translations so the whole story on linkages between Saddam Hussein is not yet fully known. Many potentially relevant documents were either inadvertently destroyed by Coalition forces during major combat actions, or else were hidden or destroyed by members of the former regime.

As the Federation of American Scientists noted, the Iraqi documents themselves are an eclectic, uneven bunch. One of them, a 50-page Iraqi “intelligence” analysis, disparages the austerely conservative Wahhabi school of Islam by claiming that its 18th century founder, Ibn ‘Abd al Wahhab, had ancestors who were Jews.

In what must be the only laugh-out-loud line in the generally dismal five-volume report, the Iraqi analysis states that Ibn ‘Abd al Wahhab’s grandfather’s true name was not “Sulayman” but “Shulman.”

“Tawran confirms that Sulayman, the grandfather of the sheikh, is (Shulman); he is Jew from the merchants of the city of Burstah in Turkey, he had left it and settled in Damascus, grew his beard, and wore the Muslim turban, but was thrown out for being voodoo.”

The study does amply confirm, to nobody’s surprise, that Saddam Hussein was willing to use terror and terrorists to maintain his grip on power. A series of memorandum dated April 2000 outlined an operation where a volunteer was to travel to London to kill Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress. The operation failed, in part, because the Iraqi agent failed to obtain a visa to enter the United Kingdom.

It bears noting that this report is not the first one to conclude there was no al-Qaeda link to Saddam Hussein. Other reports have also reached the same conclusion, including ones from the Sept. 11 Commission and the Pentagon’s Inspector General.

Yet in the world of fantasy and half-truth that pervades the outlook of those who supported the invasion of Iraq and keeping U.S. troops there, the reality confirmed by the JFC report is likely to matter not at all. As publications like the Weekly Standard and National Review show, if reality can’t be denied it can always be spun.

David Isenberg is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, and an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information.