Safire gets it wrong: Zarqawi
William Safire’s piece, ‘Finally, a smoking gun,’ provoked a lot of dissent among my readers, who asked me to say something.
I am waiting to see the Arabic text of the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi letter before commenting on it; I am told it was released today in Baghdad but I haven’t seen it on the Web yet. But what is reported of it seems to me plausible.
Safire is close to Ariel Sharon and has all along misreported the situation in Iraq to help get up the war that Sharon wanted against the Baath regime. He has on several occasions alleged things that he almost certainly knew were not true. You have to read Safire as an ideologue, not as a journalist. He is far, far into the Spin Zone.
The letter does not prove the things Safire alleges.
1) Ansar al-Islam was a small, mainly Kurdish little group operating under the protection of the US no-fly zone. Its radical Islamism would not have been allowed in Baath-controlled territory. Even the Iraqi Islamic Party (Muslim Brotherhood) was banned by Saddam, and it was not nearly as radical. Although the US did not sponsor Ansar al-Islam, it was the no-fly zone that made it possible. It was not “Iraq” that harbored the group, but the US no-fly zone. Ansar al-Islam destroyed Naqshbandi shrines and attacked traditional, Sufi Islam in the Kurdish regions. Much of what Safire alleges about it is said to come from Kurdish villagers who were fighting it. I’d take whatever they said with a grain of salt. The likelihood is that his source is not Kurdish villagers at all, though. Did they have a fax machine in their village? His source is more likely Mossad, Israeli intelligence, which probably had agents observing the situation in Kurdistan. Mossad, of course, has been wrong about Iraq all along and may be the source of some of the bad intelligence given to the United States.
2) A Jordanian who had fought in Afghanistan, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, hooked up with Ansar al-Islam, and there were probably some other Afghanistan veterans among them as well, though only a couple or a handful. (Certainly not all 400, as Safire says; and note how tiny the group is, upon which such monumental arguments are being hung!) They were mostly home-grown Kurdish fundamentalists. There is no evidence that al-Zarqawi is al-Qaeda in the strict sense of having pledged fealty to Bin Laden and having carried out a terrorist mission for him. But he was an “Arab Afghan” and had tenuous ties to Bin Laden’s group.
3) I have seen no documentary evidence that Ansar al-Islam received direct support from Saddam Hussein. Safire says Saddam armed and supported them, but offers not even one document to prove it. Thousands and thousands of Baath documents were captured in northern Iraq when the no-fly zone was established, and have been being transcribed at Harvard. Why do none of them refer to supporting Ansar al-Islam? What we have found in Iraq is that lots of things are asserted. Where’s the proof?
Moreover, even if it could be established that the Baathists passed some money to Ansar al-Islam to make trouble for the Kurdish parties, KDP and PUK, that would be in the context of local Iraqi politics, not a sign of support for al-Qaeda per se. The Kurdish parties had defied Saddam, and he wanted revenge on them. As I say, this scenario is pure speculation, but even it would not prove what is alleged. When, in 1996, the two main Kurdish parties fell to fighting one another in a mini-civil war, Saddam did give support to Massoud Barzani’s KDP, helping it take Irbil from Talabani’s PUK. One could use Safire’s logic of guilt by contiguity to prove that therefore Massoud Barzani is a supporter of al-Qaeda!
4) George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others have asserted that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was at one point treated in a Baghdad hospital, and have alleged that this medical treatment demonstrates that Saddam was supporting him. However, with so much bad intelligence floating around, we cannot be sure of the Baghdad hospital story. Haven’t we captured the relevant hospital records by now? Can’t they be cited? And, we now know that Saddam was not running a tight totalitarian society but rather a ramshackle dilapidated one. Cheney alleged that al-Zarqawi could not have been treated in Baghdad without Saddam knowing about it. That is ridiculous. Of course he could have been. His presence did not require the permission of the secret police! The secret police were clueless or easily bribed.
5) Zarqawi’s recent letter does not demonstrate a pre-existing relationship of the Saddam regime with al-Qaeda, in any way shape or form. It even suggests that al-Qaeda hasn’t had much presence in post-war Iraq, which Zarqawi laments. He is making a proposal to Ayman al-Zawahiri to get up an al-Qaeda effort in Iraq. Al-Qaeda is like a venture capitalist holding company. It funds projects that terror entrepreneurs bring to it. If al-Zarqawi is only at this late date applying for an al-Qaeda project, he can’t be considered to have been close to the organization in the past few years.
Abu Zubaida and Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, two high al-Qaeda officials in US custody, told the CIA that Usama Bin Laden forbade al-Qaeda to cooperate with Saddam’s regime because it was an infidel socialist nationalist one. The Baathists themselves hated Islamists and persecuted them. There is no evidence whatsoever of tactical collaboration between the Baath and al-Qaeda, not even the bad cherry-picked, single-sourced kind. This letter certainly is not such evidence.
There is a major sin in history writing, that of anachronism. You assume that a later fact was also true at an earlier time, when it was not. The Baathists and al-Qaeda may now be so desperate that they are cooperating. It is anachronism to project that situation back in time, as Safire does.
“Of the liberation’s three casus belli, one was to stop mass murder, bloodier than in Kosovo; we are finding horrific mass graves in Iraq.”
Most of those mass graves were dug in the spring of 1991, when George Bush senior had called on the Shiites to rise up, and then did, and then Bush allowed the Baath to massacre them. The Shiites have not forgiven the US for that betrayal. It is difficult to see this as a reason for the US to go to war, killing some 7000 Iraqi civilians and wounding 20,000, over a decade later.
“Another was informed suspicion that a clear link existed between world terror and Saddam; this terrorist plea for Qaida reinforcements to kill Iraqi democracy is the smoking gun proving that.“
Zarqawi’s letter is no such thing. It contains no reference to ‘how we used to get such good support from our buddy Saddam in the old days.’ The English paraphrases of it don’t even mention Saddam or the old days. It is about the future.
Charge against Safire: Anachronism.
Verdict: Guilty as charged.
“The third was a reasoned judgment that Saddam had a bioweapon that could wipe out a city; in time, we are likely to find a buried suitcase containing that, too.”
Actually, I can’t remember anyone in the administration making a big deal out of bioweapons. The biggest danger cited by Bush was nukes, and that entire story was false, as Joe Wilson had already shown in spring of 2002.
You can’t have bioweapons buried in a suitcase unless you have laboratories and factories actively producing them. These labs and factories cannot easily be hidden, and there is no reason for the Iraqi scientists to conceal them now anyway. They don’t exist, Bill. Get over it. In any case, since you were wrong about everything else, why should we believe you on this one?