Wednesday, March 12, 2003

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Iraq, Al Qaeda, and a modest proposal for the Security Council

This Washington Post story provides some excellent detail on the precise link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. The first few grafs:

Most of the estimated 100 Arab extremists reported to have found a haven in this rocky corner of northern Iraq began arriving early last year, a few weeks after losing their camps in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

The Halabja Valley, their destination, is one of the more obscure places in the world, about 35 miles southeast of Sulaymaniyah and close to the mountainous border with Iran. A U-shaped enclave just inside Iraq had been taken over by radical Islamic Kurds, the Ansar al-Islam, who fielded an estimated 900 fighters and regarded the two secular Kurdish organizations who run the rest of northern Iraq as their enemies.

The Ansar-run pocket, although only 10 to 15 square miles, was the ideal place to hide out. Residents at nearby Anab, just north of Halabja on the road to Sulaymaniyah, noticed how intently their new neighbors guarded their privacy but did nothing to disturb it. The newcomers, they say, kept to a village reserved for Arabs, appeared in the market only to buy provisions and buried their dead in their own cemetery.

Since then, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other Bush administration officials have highlighted the foreign fighters' presence in the Ansar enclave in an effort to link Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization and the government of President Saddam Hussein, which controls Iraq south of the Kurdish-administered zone but has little influence here. Citing interrogations of Ansar members who were taken prisoner, Kurdish political officials confirm that the group sent a steady stream of trainees to the camps that al Qaeda operated in Afghanistan until U.S. forces ended Taliban rule there at the end of 2001. (emphasis added)

Now, this piece makes two things clear. First, contrary to many skeptics' assertions, there is an Al Qaeda presence in Iraq. Second, it's also clear that Saddam Hussein has little to do with this presence. At worst, Hussein's policy on Al Qaeda might be characterized as benign neglect -- he's not helping them but he doesn't mind them being in parts of Iraq he can't control. There might be other reasons to support regime change in Iraq, but the Al Qaeda connection is a weak reed.

However, there's military action short of regime change. At a minimum, the Post story would seem to justify an offensive to knock out Ansar al-Islam and retake the Halabja Valley. This leads to an intriguing question. 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? [So you think this would be an acceptable substitute to a whole-scale invasion?--ed. No, I still support an invasion. But securing Security Council support for this phase of operations might be an good stop-gap proposal].

This would be an excellent test of where exactly the French and Germans stand. Is their opposition to Iraq based on a blind determination to counter U.S. power, or is there some nuance to their stance?

posted by Dan on 03.12.03 at 01:48 PM