Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday left no doubt that Iraq has been concealing its weapons programs. More compelling, however, was Powell's disclosure of Iraqi links to al Qaeda.
Specifically, Powell discussed Saddam's ties to Ansar al-Islam, an al Qaeda affiliate active in northern Iraq since September 2001.
Ansar al-Islam was founded in August 2001 when Kurdish Islamic fundamentalist leaders reportedly visited the al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan with the goal of creating an al Qaeda base in northern Iraq. Powell noted that, after the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban, al Qaeda established "another poison and explosive training center camp... in northeastern Iraq." This camp, created with $300,000 to $600,000 in al Qaeda seed money, became the base of Ansar al-Islam.
Today, Ansar al-Islam has all the brutal hallmarks of an al Qaeda affiliate. It operates in fortified mountain positions along the Iran-Iraq border known as "Little Tora Bora" (named after the Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan). Armed with heavy machine guns, mortars and antiaircraft weaponry, it fulfills al Qaeda' vision of a global jihad. The group's goal is to disrupt civil society and create a Taliban- like regime in northern Iraq. It has already banned music, alcohol, photographs and advertising in its stronghold. Girls are prevented from studying; men must grow beards and pray five times daily.
Ansar's first major attack came in September 2001 when it ambushed and killed 42 Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) fighters. In February 2002, the group assassinated a Kurdish Christian politician. That spring, Ansar attempted to murder Barham Salih, a PUK leader; five bodyguards and two attackers were killed in the ensuing gunfight. In June, the group bombed a Kurdish restaurant, injuring scores and killing a child. In July, the group killed nine PUK fighters, and destroyed several Sufi shrines -- a move reminiscent of the Taliban.
And when the PUK sent 1,500 soldiers home to celebrate the end of Ramadan in December 2002, Ansar launched a surprise attack. On its Web site, the group bragged of killing 103 PUK fighters and wounding 117. That same month, Jordan's prime minister announced that a high level al Qaeda operative, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, had sought refuge with Ansar.
Powell yesterday mentioned Zarqawi repeatedly. He is wanted for ordering the spring 2002 attack on Barham Salih as well as the October 2002 murder of U.S. Agency for International Development officer Laurence Foley in Amman, Jordan. Today, noted Powell, "Iraq is harboring Zarqawi and his subordinates."
Powell flatly stated that Ansar has set up chemical-weapons facilities in northern Iraq. Previous reports indicated that Baghdad helped to smuggle these weapons from Afghanistan and that Ansar al-Islam has tested substances such as cyanide gas and the poison Ricin. Kurdish groups cite "clear evidence" that such tests have been performed on animals. And The Washington Post reports that the group smuggled VX nerve gas through Turkey in fall 2001.
Powell said that this current cooperation "builds on decades-long experience with respect to ties between Iraq and al Qaeda." High level meetings took place between Saddam's lieutenants and al Qaeda operatives throughout the 1990s.
Bush administration officials today believe that Ansar al-Islam works with Saddam through an al Qaeda operative on Saddam's payroll named Abu Wa'il. This is likely who Powell meant when he said, "Baghdad has an agent in the most senior levels" of al Qaeda.
Powell added that "al Qaeda affiliates, based in Baghdad, now coordinate the movement of people, money and supplies into and throughout Iraq" and that "they've now been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months."
More than 30 Ansar militants are now incarcerated in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. Their testimony provides clues about the group's ties to Saddam, al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction. U.S. intelligence has reportedly interviewed them. Perhaps Powell's speech was the culmination of those efforts.
With Saddam now linked to Osama bin Laden, Americans with doubts about invading Iraq are likely thinking twice. The administration already had justification for military action against Iraq, but Saddam's regime is now clearly a legitimate target in the war on terror.
Jonathan Schanzer is a Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.