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A smoking gun and Powell’s blind eye

By B Raman, Asia Times, 4 February 2003

As part of the countdown to the expected invasion of Iraq, General Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, is expected to present before the UN Security Council on February 5 the evidence which the US claims to have on Iraq's clandestine procurement of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), its links with Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network, and the dangers of these terrorist elements getting WMD from the Saddam Hussein regime.

In his statement, one can expect references to the alleged involvement of NEC Engineering, a New Delhi-based company, in the clandestine supply to Iraq of dual-purpose materials that could be used for the production of chemical weapons and rocket fuel. This matter has been under investigation by the intelligence and investigative agencies of the government of India for over a year now, but some details were first leaked by the British government in its White Paper of last September on Iraq's clandestine WMD program. Subsequently, as Anglo-American pressure on the UN to act against Baghdad was stepped up, sections of the US media, some acting on their own and some apparently at the prodding of the administration, have turned the focus on the alleged use of this company by the Iraqi regime.

Officials of the company, as well as the Iraqi government, have strongly denied these allegations. Despite this, these transactions continue to be projected as part of the evidence against Saddam Hussein. On January 26, a day before the presentation by chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix of the inspectors' report before the Security Council, some sections of the Indian media and CNN came out with details of the investigation made by Indian agencies against the company. CNN's special feature on the subject sought to project the results of the investigation as one of the smoking guns which needed to be considered by Blix.

In his indictment of the Saddam government on the question of complicity with al-Qaeda and the International Islamic Front (IIF), Powell is expected to focus on the activities from Iraqi soil of an allegedly pro-Baghdad Kurdish organization called Ansar al Islam (AAI) led by Najm al-Din Faraj Ahmad, also known as Mullah Krekar, who lives in Oslo, Norway. For over a year now, the AAI has been projected by Pentagon officials and pro-US Kurdish leaders such as those of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan as a Kurdish Taliban, a member of the IIF, and the West Asian equivalent of the Jemmah Islamiya of Southeast Asia. Western, particularly US, media have been replete with stories of the AAI's links with Saddam on the one hand and bin Laden on the other, the alleged training of its cadres in al-Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan before September 11, its alleged links with some experts of al-Qaeda on chemical warfare, a laboratory for the production of chemical weapons allegedly run by it in the area under its control in northern Iraq, its alleged links with the Algerians recently arrested in the UK on suspicion of trying to produce ricin, a lethal chemical extracted from castor beans, etc.

It would seem that most of this so-called evidence has been coming from the pro-US Kurdish leaders. Even some US analysts have said that while Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon as a whole have been projecting this evidence as clinching, the CIA's counter-terrorism experts are not that convinced, but have been going along with the administration.

Until last spring, even the US State Department's counter terrorism division did not seem to have believed seriously the Pentagon's allegations of Saddam's links with al-Qaeda. In its annual report for 2001 on the Patterns of Global Terrorism presented to Congress in April last, it referred to the sanctuaries in Iraqi territory allegedly enjoyed by the anti-Tehran Mujahideen-e-Khaq, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the Palestine Liberation Front, and the Abu Nidal Organization, as well as Baghdad's contacts with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But there was not even an allegation that any of these organizations had links with al-Qaeda. The only reference to bin Laden was in a comment that Iraq was the only Arab country which did not condemn the September 11 attacks and that an article in a newspaper run by one of Saddam's sons expressed sympathy for bin Laden.

As Eli J Lake, United Press International's State Department correspondent, pointed out in a dispatch dated January 28, the Pentagon accuses the AAI of links with al-Qaeda, but has not so far considered it necessary to seek the extradition and interrogation of its leader, who lives openly in Oslo. The dispatch said, Najm al-Din Faraj Ahmad, also known as Mullah Krekar, is—according to officials of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in northern Iraq and administration hawks—a terrorist with ties to al-Qaeda; a man who has acquired chemical weapons; and who has received funding from Iraq and logistical support from elements in the Iranian intelligence service. Krekar himself denied these allegations this month at a news conference in Norway. But while hawks—especially in the Pentagon - believe Krekar is a 'smoking gun' linking Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, the CIA is skeptical about his alleged ties to Baghdad. One US official sympathetic to that view told United Press International Tuesday, 'There is no evidence that Saddam and his regime are directly financing and arming Ansar al Islam'.

If you believe the hawks, Krekar meets the criteria of what Bush described in his State of the Union address last week as the gravest threat posed by rogue regimes. These regimes could use such weapons for blackmail, terror and mass murder. They could also give or sell those weapons to their terrorist allies, who would use them without the least hesitation, he said. And yet, the State Department does not appear disturbed that Krekar—under house arrest in Norway—is able to hold news conferences and communicate with members of his group in northern Iraq.

In an interview with Al Hayat, an Arab language daily published from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Mullah Krekar alleged that in 2000 he had rejected a request from the CIA to collaborate with it against Saddam and that since then it had launched a campaign projecting him and his organization as having links with al-Qaeda.

Powell announced on January 30 the designation of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ) of Pakistan as a foreign terrorist organization under a 1996 US law. This organization came into existence in 1996 as the militant wing of the Sunni extremist Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), which itself has been active since the days of the late Pakistani military ruler, Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s. The SSP and its LEJ were being used by the CIA, the Iraqi intelligence and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for operations directed against the Iranian regime. They killed a large number of Shi'ites, Iranian diplomats and military officers in Pakistan during the 1990s. They assisted the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, became a member of bin Laden's IIF after its formation in 1998 and were used by bin Laden for carrying out a massacre of the Shi'ites (Hazaras) of Afghanistan. The SSP's leader, Maulana Azam Tariq, who is now a member of Pakistan's newly-elected National Assembly, is considered by many as the mentor of many of the Pakistan-based pan-Islamic jihadi organizations.

So long as the SSP and the LEJ served US interests by creating trouble for Iran, Washington closed its eyes to their acts of terrorism, but after they started attacking US and other Western nationals and Pakistani Christians from the beginning of last year, the US suddenly woke up to its being a terrorist organization. After a wave of attacks on Shi'ites in Karachi in 2001, President General Pervez Musharraf himself banned the LEJ on August 14, 2001, and the SSP on January 15, 2002, but did not round up their leaders and cadres trained by al-Qaeda. However, since June 2002, under US pressure, he has been acting more strictly against them and has tried to neutralize them.

It will be interesting to see whether Powell will refer to the well-established links of the LEJ with the Saddam regime, and with the ISI on the one hand and with al-Qaeda on the other. If he does, how will he explain the pre-August 2001 use of the LEJ by the ISI for achieving Pakistan's strategic objectives in Afghanistan and India and the US's failure to act as vigorously against the Musharraf regime as it has been trying to act against the Saddam regime? How can he argue that it was all right for Pakistani military regimes to have created them and used them as long as they did not attack US nationals and interests, but it was an international crime for Iraq to have used them to serve its own interests?