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6/30/2004

Missed Opportunities

[Because of its currency, I am posting a portion of an in-progress article. It discusses the administration failure to hit the Ansar base in N. Iraq prior to the invasion.]


On February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell laid out before the United Nations the U.S. case for an invasion of Iraq. Key to the argument was one man: Abu Musab Zarqawi.

But what I want to bring to your attention today is the potentially much more sinister nexus between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network, a nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder. Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, an associated collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants.

Zarqawi, a Palestinian born in Jordan, fought in the Afghan war more than a decade ago. Returning to Afghanistan in 2000, he oversaw a terrorist training camp. One of his specialties and one of the specialties of this camp is poisons. When our coalition ousted the Taliban, the Zarqawi network helped establish another poison and explosive training center camp. And this camp is located in northeastern Iraq.

You see a picture of this camp.1
Powell's case was curious. The U.S. apparently had specific information on the location of a terrorist training camp;2 the Coalition Provisional Authority web site notes that "[l]ong before the Iraq war, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was aware of a poisons and explosives training center in northeastern Iraq that the al-Zarqawi network was running."3 Powell admitted that the camp was not in the portion of Iraq over which Saddam Hussein retained control.4 The next day, Senator Joe Biden asked the obvious question: why haven't we already taken this base out?5
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing yesterday, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) asked Powell why no military action has been taken against the Ansar camp since U.S. officials became aware of it in August. Noting that he was in Kurdistan last summer, Biden said there were reports at the time that an attack against the camp was planned.

Powell responded that there had been intelligence monitoring of the camp. "It's been occupied and unoccupied since last summer," he said. As for why no military action has been taken, Powell told Biden that he could not talk about "specific military contingency plans."

Powell said the United States has been "tracing individuals who have gone in there and come out of there," a surveillance effort that enabled him "to make the presentation that I made yesterday." The tracing of those individuals and the testimony of one detainee helped Powell connect Zarqawi's network to plotted terrorist attacks in Europe during his U.N. presentation.
Commentators asked the same question. The progressive writer, David Corn, writing in the Nation, asked:
"Why hasn't the United States bombed the so-called Zarqawi camp shown in the slide? The administration obviously knows where it is, and Powell spoke of it in the present tense. If it is an outpost of chemical weapons and explosives development for al Qaida, why not take it out, especially since it is situated within a part of Iraq uncontrolled by any national government? This part of Powell's briefing reinforced a crucial point: Al-Qaida is the pressing danger at the moment."6
Conservative blogger Dan Drezner also noted the conundrum.7

In a March 2004 NBC report, Jim Miklaszewski provided an ugly answer. He reported that George W. Bush thrice passed on an opportunity to "wipe out his terror operation and perhaps kill Zarqawi himself."8 Three times – in June 2002, August 2002,9 and January 2003 – "we had targets, we had opportunities, we had a country willing to support casualties, or risk casualties after 9/11 and we still didn’t do it,” according to Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.
Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi’s operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.
Former National Security Council member Roger Cressey10 claims that "people were more obsessed with developing the coalition to overthrow Saddam than to execute the president’s policy of preemption against terrorists." Bloggers commented on the shocking story, but there was little official notice.11

Miklaszewski's claim was not unprecedented, though. A similar argument was made almost a year earlier by Greg Miller, in the Los Angeles Times. Miller reported that "[l]awmakers who have attended classified briefings on the camp say they have been stymied for months in their efforts to get an explanation for why the United States has not begun a military strike on the compound near the village of Khurmal.12
"Absent an explanation from the White House, some officials suggested the administration had refrained from striking the compound in part to preserve a key piece of its case against Iraq.

"This is it. This is their compelling evidence for use of force," said one intelligence official, who asked not to be identified. "If you take it out, you can't use it as justification for war."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a member of the intelligence panel, said she and other members had been frustrated in their attempts to get an explanation from administration officials in closed-door briefings.

"We've been asking this question and have not been given an answer," Feinstein said. Officials have replied that "they'll have to get back to us."

Asked whether the White House might have rejected hitting the site to avoid complicating its efforts to build support for war against Iraq, she said: "That's an obvious thought. I hope not."

I too hope, against the evidence, that the White House wouldn't refuse to destroy a Zarqawi terrorist camp to buttress its marginal case for war. In fact, I hope that the administration refrained from striking because the intelligence wasn't reliable enough for action. The rest of this paper is an effort to tease out, from public media, the tenuous connections between Zarqawi and Ansar al-Islam, Zarqawi and al-Qaeda, Zarqawi and Hussein, Ansar al-Islam and al-Qaeda, and Ansar al-Islam and Hussein. The only clear conclusions one can draw about Zarqawi are how little we know and how many people have an incentive to mislead us.


1. Colin Powell, Speech Before the United Nations, 2/5/03 reprinted in THE WASHINGTON POST, A24 2/6/03 available at www.washingtonpost.com/ wp-srv/nation/transcripts/powelltext_020503.html.

2. Our intelligence wasn't perfect, though. "The picture Mr. Powell displayed on a monitor during his speech purported to show a “Terrorist Poison Explosives Factory” [sic] in Khurmal. That village, however, has not been under the control of Ansar al-Islam, but of Komaleh Islami, which has denied the charge. The PUK, which has funded Komaleh, has likewise asserted that the Secretary of State is mistaken." International Crisis Group, Radical Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan: The Mouse that Roared, 6 2/7/03 available at www.icg.org/home/index.cfm?id=1823&l=1 (citing C.J. Chivers, Kurds Puzzled by Report of Terror Camp, NEW YORK TIMES, 2/6/03.) The slide is available on the White House website, at www.whitehouse.gov/ news/releases/2003/02/powell-slides/39.html.

3. Zarqawi Bio, COALITION PROVISIONAL AUTHORITY, available at www.cpa-iraq.org/bios/zarqawi_bio.html.

4. See Colin Powell, Speech Before the United Nations, 2/5/03 reprinted in THE WASHINGTON POST, A24 2/6/03 available at www.washingtonpost.com/ wp-srv/nation/transcripts/powelltext_020503.html. ("Those helping to run this camp are Zarqawi lieutenants operating in northern Kurdish areas outside Saddam Hussein's controlled Iraq.")

5. Walter Pincus, Alleged Al Qaeda Ties Questioned; Experts Scrutinize Details of Accusations Against Iraqi Government, The Washington Post, A21 2/7/03 available at www.washingtonpost.com/ ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A38235-2003Feb6¬Found=true.

6. David Corn, No Cause for Invasion, PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE B-1, 2/9/03, first printed in The Nation 2/6/03, available at www.thenation.com/capitalgames/index.mhtml?bid=3&pid=371.

7. See Daniel Drezner, Iraq, al Qaeda, and a Modest Proposal for the Security Council, 3/12/2003 available at www.drezner.blogspot.com/ 2003_03_09_drezner_archive.html#90603539. Drezner asks why the U.S. hadn't gone to the Security Council to get authorization for strikes on Kirma: "Given the obvious link between achieving this objective and the war on terror, and given the assertions by France and others that credible evidence of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda would justify use of force, would the Security Council be willing to approve U.S. military action in this area?" He relies on Karl Vick, In Remote Corner of Iraq, an Odd Alliance, WASHINGTON POST A01 3/12/03, available at www.washingtonpost.com/ ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A12762-2003Mar11¬Found=true

8. Jim Miklaszewski, Avoiding Attacking Suspected Terrorist Mastermind, MSNBC 3/2/04 available at www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4431601/.

9. ABC News reported on the canceling of the August raid, noting that "[i]n the final analysis, the White House, Pentagon and CIA concluded it was not worth risking American lives to go after these people and not worth the adverse publicity that would surely follow any U.S. operation inside Iraq." John McWethy, Bush Cancels Iraqi Strike, ABC NEWS, 8/20/04 available at abcnews.go.com/ sections/wnt/DailyNews/iraq_mission_aborted020819.html. See also Pam O’Toole, FBI Questions Iraqi Kurd Militant, BBC NEWS, WORLD EDITION, 9/27/02 available at news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2285703.stm

10. Cressey has been implicated in a self-dealing scandal, but his commentary is credible. See Department of Defense, SOCO Advisory, 6/9/03 available at www.defenselink.mil/ dodgc/defense_ethics/2003_Advisories/ADV_0308.htm/.

11. See, e.g., Dan Darling, A Reader Requests Aid 3/30/04 available at regnumcrucis.blogspot.com/ 2004_03_28_regnumcrucis_archive.html#108062642901378720; John Quiggin, The Zarqawi Scandal, available at www.johnquiggin.com/archives/001608.html; Brad DeLong, The Strange Survival of Ansar al-Islam's Base in Northern Iraq, available at www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/2004_archives/000428.html; Bob Somerby, Why is Zarqawi Still Walking Around, THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/22/04 available at http://www.dailyhowler.com/dh052204.shtml.

12. See Greg Miller, U.S. Inaction on Camp Questioned, LOS ANGELES TIMES, 2/7/03.

 

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