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Allies Find No Links Between Iraq, Al Qaeda

Evidence isn't there, officials in Europe say, adding that an attack on Hussein would worsen the threat of terrorism by Islamic radicals.

November 04, 2002|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — As the Bush administration prepares for a possible military attack on Iraq that it describes as the next logical step in its war on terror, some of its strongest front-line allies in that war dispute Washington's allegations that the Baghdad regime has significant ties to Al Qaeda.

In recent interviews, top investigative magistrates, prosecutors, police and intelligence officials who have been fighting Al Qaeda in Europe said they are concerned about attempts by President Bush and his aides to link Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden's terror network.

"We have found no evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda," said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, the French judge who is the dean of the region's investigators after two decades fighting Islamic and Middle Eastern terrorists. "And we are working on 50 cases involving Al Qaeda or radical Islamic cells. I think if there were such links, we would have found them. But we have found no serious connections whatsoever."

Even in Britain, a loyal U.S. partner in the campaign against Iraq, it's hard to find anyone in the government making the case that Al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime are close allies. In fact, European counter-terrorist veterans who are working with American counterparts worry that an attack on Iraq, especially a unilateral U.S. invasion, would worsen the threat of radical Islamic terrorism worldwide and impede their work.

"A war on Iraq will not diminish the terrorist threat. It will probably increase it," said Baltasar Garzon, Spain's best-known investigative magistrate, who is prosecuting Al Qaeda suspects in Madrid as alleged accomplices in the Sept. 11 attacks. "It could radicalize the situation in the Middle East.... As for the investigations of Sept. 11, doors would close in the Arab world that have helped in the fight against Al Qaeda. And a war would do nothing to bolster the investigation into the attacks in the United States."

The European critics aren't limited to the usual suspects: instinctively anti-American, pro-Arab politicians and pundits whose voices are often the loudest in the Iraq debate here. On the contrary, Bruguiere, Garzon and other investigators have won praise from U.S. officials for their tough tactics and proven willingness to lock up suspected terrorists during the past year.

Even before Sept. 11, long-running cases in Europe were valuable resources for U.S. investigators working to learn more about Islamic networks. Investigations in France, Spain and elsewhere have helped build cases against Zacarias Moussaoui, an alleged accomplice of the hijackers who awaits trial in Virginia, and other suspects.

The criticism in Europe reinforces the misgivings of some U.S. congressional leaders and intelligence officials about hawks in the Bush administration who allege that Iraq could have even played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks. Critics say that the evidence is weak and that intelligence agencies are feeling political pressure to implicate Iraq in terrorism.

In the last two months, Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others have periodically revived and expanded on the allegations.

On Friday, Bush specifically linked Hussein to the terrorist network. "We know he's got ties with Al Qaeda," Bush said during an election rally in New Hampshire. "A nightmare scenario, of course, is that he becomes the arsenal for a terrorist network, where they could attack America and he'd leave no fingerprints behind. He is a problem."

The U.S. leaders have made much of a supposed meeting between Mohamed Atta, the leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, and an Iraqi spy in Prague, the Czech capital, last year. They have cited "bulletproof evidence," in Rumsfeld's words, of the recent presence of Al Qaeda members in Iraq and of contacts between senior Al Qaeda figures and the Baghdad regime that allegedly go back years. They have accused Iraq of training Al Qaeda terrorists in the use of chemical weapons.

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Premise Called Flawed

European experts say they haven't seen U.S. proof or been able to confirm the accusations independently. The Europeans say the premise is flawed because Hussein embodies the kind of secular Arab dictators whom Bin Laden has sworn to bring down.

Talk of an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection is "nonsense," said a high-ranking source in the German intelligence community. "Not even the Americans believe it anymore."

The German government has resolutely opposed a potential war on Iraq, partly out of domestic electoral calculations. And it has angered Washington in the process. France has pursued a diplomatic offensive to tone down a proposed U.S. resolution at the United Nations mandating aggressive weapons inspections in Iraq, while asserting that it could accept military action approved by the U.N.

In contrast, Britain, Spain and Italy have indicated that they would support a U.S.-led attack even if the U.N. process breaks down.

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