Iraq, al-Qaeda and al-Zarqawi

Vice President Dick Cheney gave a speech on June 14th to The James Madison Institute, a conservative Florida-based “think tank.” (That term that usually describes a handful of ideologues positing as “thinkers,” and acquiring, through corporate donations, the kind of respectability that allows the corporate media to cite it as somehow knowledgeable about the topics about which it thinks. These tanks are also useful in that they can invite prestigious speakers to speak in a supportive, protective atmosphere, knowing that their remarks will be widely covered in the press.) In it, Cheney repeated his claim that Saddam Hussein has had longstanding ties to al-Qaeda. “He was a patron of terrorism,” Cheney told the assembled thinkers. “He had long established ties with al-Qaida.” This insistence on Iraq-al Qaeda ties seems to be the centerpiece of the standard speech the vice president gives, but journalists now dutifully note that intelligence officials have rejected that connection, and so whenever he restates it, his own credibility likely suffers.
Cheney’s favorability ratings are way down.

A memo indicating that his office was directly involved in the decision to award Halliburton (of which he was formerly CEO) no-bid contracts worth seven billion dollars in Iraq reconstruction work prior to the war last year; reports that most likely a member of Cheney’s office vindictively (and criminally) leaked to the press the identity of former ambassador Joseph Wilson’s CIA agent wife; charges that Cheney personally, repeatedly visited CIA headquarters to influence “intelligence” reporting in order to bolster the administration’s case for war with Iraq; and even his role as Bush “transition director” in placing neocons eager for a war with Iraq in key positions in the Defense Department and his own office…all these will likely embarrass him further in the coming months. But maybe, with the arrogance for the masses that typifies neocons, he will plod on disseminating disinformation, in his cool, measured, grandfatherly style, knowing that if challenged on the Iraq al-Qaeda link he will need only say, “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.”

If al-Zarqawi did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. The “Jordanian-born” militant (variously described as “Palestinian” or “Bedouin”) is the link posited by the Bush administration between Saddam Hussein, the secularist, and bin Laden, the Islamic fundamentalist. (In his crucial speech to the United Nations before the war, Colin Powell declared that there was a “sinister nexus between Iraq and the Al Qaida terrorist network” and asserted that al-Zarqawi was the key figure in that nexus.) Any other links—such as the 1997 training of al-Qaeda operatives in airline hijacking, which supposedly took place at the Salman Pak training facility outside Baghdad—have been discredited. That leaves us with the al-Zarqawi link. The nice thing about the latter is that al-Zarqawi straddles the pre-invasion and post-invasion periods, and so can be used (by the neocons anyway) to justify not only the invasion but the ongoing occupation. Why’d we invade? Because, Cheney (who can no longer speak of weapons of mass destruction) explains, of those “long established ties with al-Qaeda.” Why are we still there? Because al-Zarqawi (either depicted as “linked to al-Qaeda” or as an al-Qaeda “operative”) is there in Iraq, and if his influence grows, Iraq will become Osama bin-Laden’s base for more attacks on the USA Homeland. His supposed presence, that is, justifies (so long as it may be posited) the presence of U.S. occupying forces. He—another personification of evil, a human face on Terror to add to that of the frustratingly elusive bin Laden—is indeed necessary.

As such, it is best that he remain as vaguely defined as possible. If, for example, you say he had his leg amputated in 2002 in the Baghdad hospital from which (you say) he made a phone call that you intercepted (that call being your key piece of evidence for the “long established” Saddam al-Qaeda ties), and then you, for example, say that the person beheading Nick Berg in Iraq two months ago, who seems to have both legs, is none other than arch-villain al-Zarqawi—then you run into logical problems. Some people (including German intelligence agents) think al-Zarqawi is as much a rival as ally to bin-Laden. The Christian Science Monitor suggests that the two men differ on how to exploit Shiite-Sunni differences in Iraq. (So best not to give to many details about this evil person, other than to make sure all know he is indeed evil, so sneakily so that if logical contradictions appear in media coverage of his activities, he, rather than they, are to blame.) But logical thinking aside, if one can depict al-Zarqawi as the mastermind of ongoing resistance to the occupation of Iraq, then you can divert attention from the general, indigenous, Iraqi rejection of the occupation, while depicting that occupation as an anti-al-Qaeda effort.

It helps to have full cooperation from a puppet government in Iraq. Following the spate of car-bombings in Baghdad recently, newly-appointed Iraqi “President” Iyad al-Allawi attributed them to the Jordanian’s nefarious network in Iraq, and declared that, “Al-Zarqawi and his followers are earnestly working to prevent the success of” the “transfer of power” to the bogus government later this month. It’s significant that longtime CIA operative al-Allawi states al-Zarqawi is behind the attacks. Al-Allawi and his Iraqi National Accord are well known for authenticating in early 2003 the discredited report that the Iraqi military could deploy chemical weapons, threatening Britons, within 45 minutes of being ordered to do so.

Then last December, al-Allawi confirmed the authenticity of a supposed hand-written memo by Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, the former head of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, found by U.S. troops in Iraq. It described a three-day “work programme” undertaken by none other than Chief 9-11 Hijacker Mohammed Atta at a Baghdad in 1991, and it mentioned a shipment of something from Niger via Libya to Iraq. Needing an imprimatur for this wonderful text, that seemed to validate several debunked administration allegations, the U.S. leaned on the reliable al-Allawi to stamp his approval on the document.

But refuting al-Allawi is the behavior of the Iraqi people. When attacks (that the puppet president attributes to al-Zarqawi) produce, around the bombing sites, joyous celebrations of Iraqi youth dancing and chanting, “America is the enemy of God,” it gets hard to depict them as the product of “foreign” interference. That very depiction is a form of disinformation, following upon so many, many instances of official deceit—that long established policy of the Bush-Cheney administration.

* * *

June 17. Sure enough, the day after Cheney made his statement, his boss, standing alongside Afghan puppet Hamid Karzai, asked by a reporter whether he supported Cheney’s view, replied in the affirmative, using the Zarqawi argument.

“Zarqawi’s the best evidence of a connection to al-Qaeda affiliates and al-Qaeda,” declared the commander-in-chief. “He’s the person who’s still killing. He’s the person—remember the email exchange between al-Qaeda leadership and he himself about how to disrupt the progress toward freedom? Saddam Hussein also had ties to terrorist organization as well.”

Some comments and questions.

1. The best evidence? So there’s MORE?

2. “Al-Qaeda affiliates” can mean whatever Bush wants it to mean. Many believe al-Zarqawi’s organization, al-Tahwid, is quite separate from al-Qaeda. But surely it is closer to it than many other groups Bush simplistically conflates with bin Laden’s organization.

3. “He’s the person still killing.” Interesting statement. There are a lot of people still killing, including bin Laden. But do I detect an effort to deflect attention away from the Saudi and towards the Jordanian? Bush has actually said, that “Bin Laden’s not important. He’s just one man. He doesn’t concern me.” He’s said, “I’m truly not that concerned about him,” referring to him in March 2002 as “a person who has now been marginalized.” But al-Zarqawi, in the Bush view, is out there front and center.

4. Email exchange? I’m aware of one rather dubious memo
found (according to one version) by U.S. forces in a raid of an “al-Qaeda safe house” in Baghdad six months ago, and immediately publicized through the New York Times and the websites of the Project for a New American Century and the National Review. I’m not aware of any reply. The memo urges Sunni attacks on Shiites in order to thwart the return of sovereignty to Iraq, which the author seems to feel will truly doom the resistance and constitute an irrevocable U.S. victory. But reportedly al-Qaeda, while rooted in fiercely anti-Shiite “Wahhabist” ideology, has actually counseled cooperation between all factions in the Iraqi resistance, including Sunnis, Shiites, and even Baathists. And I must doubt that anyone deeply involved in that resistance sees the new puppet regime under the widely despised CIA operative Iyad al-Allawi as its death-knell.

5. Progress towards freedom. The questionable memo didn’t actually mention “freedom,” a concept which is of course differently understood by different people. Bush proclaims both Afghanistan and Iraq “free” at present. He sees progress towards Palestinian freedom infinitely postponable. His point here is that al-Zarqawi is, like all the terrorists, “against our freedoms” and thus appropriate objects of fear and loathing by Americans, whom he assures the world “are a good people” pretty much by definition. Except maybe for that handful of “bad apples” at Abu Ghraib.

6. Saddam Hussein also had ties to terrorist organization as well. (Perhaps the redundant “as well” is intended to strengthen the assertion.) Bush can safely say that Baghdad had ties to some organizations, viewed by most Iraqis as Palestinian and Lebanese (Hizbollah) patriots, that appear on the State Department’s list of international terrorist organizations. Many find that list highly skewed, but it’s the official reference-point for “counter-terror” statements and actions. What Bush is saying here is, “It doesn’t matter if Saddam had any al-Qaeda ties. He had other terrorist ties, so when my critics get on my case for not proving an al-Qaeda link, well, hey, there’s other links just as bad. I mean, why should anybody get all bothered about the details?”

And here’s a real quote: “I look forward to the debates where people are saying, ‘Oh, gosh, the world would be better off if Saddam were still in power.” Forget all this debate about why I told you folks we needed to invade!

Unfortunately for Bush and Cheney, as the president was spouting this nonsense the Sept. 11 Commission was telling Congress that there is “no credible evidence” for a Saddam link to the attacks, nor indeed any significant operational connection between Baghdad and al-Qaeda, ever. And also, yesterday, with perfect timing, 27 retired diplomats and military officers, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Ronald Reagan, weighed in with a statement accusing Bush of “a cynical campaign to persuade the public that Saddam Hussein was linked to al-Qaeda and the attacks of Sept. 11.” Then came the results of a poll commissioned by the occupation authorities themselves, showing that 55% of Iraqis would feel safer if the occupation forces left immediately, and that 54% believe all Americans behave like the guards at Abu Ghraib. This makes it more difficult to argue that U.S. forces are liberators. But of course, we’ll have to remain in Iraq, however the people feel, if the protection of “our freedoms” requires tracking down arch-villain al-Zarqawi.

These are not good days for the Bushites, but their success to date in their deceit (most strikingly indicated by a poll taken just two months ago showing 57% of Americans still believe in the Iraq-Sept. 11 link) makes celebration of their fall premature. As Jacon Heilbrunn reports in the Los Angeles Times, “Despite charges that his homemade intelligence network at the Pentagon relied on bogus intelligence from Chalabi, [Douglas] Feith remains firmly in place at the Defense Department. David Wurmser, the architect of the pro-Chalabi strategy, is Cheney’s Middle East advisor now. Mark Lagon, a neoconservative who worked for Jeane Kirkpatrick, has been promoted at the State Department. A host of younger neocons remains embedded in other agencies.

If Bush loses the election, a bloodbath will ensue; neoconservatives will be cannibalized by traditional conservatives and by their rivals at the State Department and elsewhere. But if Bush wins and the GOP retains its Senate majority, they will continue to rise. Neoconservative pit bull John Bolton, an undersecretary of State, might well head the CIA. Their main targets in a Bush second term: Syria and Iran.”

With some influential neocons insisting that al-Zarqawi is sponsored by Iran (and in their general campaign against the Muslim world finding no logical contradiction in his ties to al-Qaeda, Baathist Iraq, and the mullocracy in Tehran) we can be sure that the Jordanian, Osama II, remains in the news, reinvented from time to time as required.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the authorof Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.
He can be reached at:

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: