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Tuesday, 19 March, 2002, 23:51 GMT
US builds its case against Saddam
Saddam Hussein meets his Revolutionary Command Council
The US is trying to build support for action against Iraq
test hello test
Paul Reynolds
BBC World Affairs correspondent in Washington
line

The last time I was in the wooden panelled committee room 216 of the Hart Senate office building was towards the end of last year, when people were lining up to have nasal swabs taken during the anthrax attack.

It was a nervous time. America had been assaulted. Anthrax was on the loose.


Let me be clear, Saddam remains a threat

George Tenet, CIA Director
Things have moved on since then.

The Hart building - closed the day after those swabs were taken - has been reopened (though the anthrax perpetrator has not been found), Mr Bush's war on terrorism is well under way - and a new war is on the horizon, against Saddam Hussein.

The time of nervousness has given way to a time of determination.

As the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, banged his gavel, the Director of the CIA, George Tenet, prepared to present his assessment of the worldwide threats faced by the United States - and prepared to point the finger at Iraq as Washington builds its case for action.

"Let me be clear", he said, " Saddam remains a threat. He is determined to thwart UN sanctions, press ahead with weapons of mass destruction, and resurrect the military force he had before the Gulf War."

'Links with bin Laden'

And then the CIA director made a new claim.

He accused Iraq of having links with al-Qaeda itself, Osama Bin Laden's organisation which, although battered, has not been beaten.

Osama bin Laden
Washington says Iraq has had contacts with bin Laden's organisation

At a stroke he was joining together America's two main bogeymen - Osama and Saddam.

Mr Tenet said: "Baghdad has a long history of supporting terrorism, altering its targets to reflect changing priorities and goals. It has also had contacts with al-Qaeda. Their ties may be limited by divergent ideologies, but the two sides' mutual antipathy towards the United States and the Saudi royal family suggests that tactical cooperation between them is possible."

He refused to go into any details of these "contacts", reserving whatever evidence he has for a secret session afterwards.

But by even making the claim, he was seeking to damn Saddam Hussein - part of the American strategy as it seeks to tighten the noose on the Iraqi leader.

Credibility doubts

Not everyone will be convinced.

World Trade Center attacked
The US suspects an Iraqi link to the 11 September attacks

The "contacts" between Iraq and al-Qaeda are thought to refer to a meeting between one of the hijackers, Mohammed Atta, and an Iraqi agent in Prague not long before 11 September.

But are reports of that meeting credible and what was discussed?

Even Mr Tenet admitted that the "jury was out" on any Iraqi role in the 11 September attacks.

The point is no longer in fact whether such links currently exist - the threat that they might is sufficient.

It was interesting in the hearing that Senator Joe Lieberman, the Democrat from Connecticut who ran as Al Gore's vice-presidential colleague, and someone keenly interested in defence issues, immediately picked up this reference and gave it a further airing.

Americans 'unprepared'

The atmosphere in Room 216 was sombre indeed.


We need to spend time and inform the people of America and the world of the possible consequences

Senator John Warner

Then silver-haired John Warner from Virginia (an old war horse whom I had first seen as a younger thoroughbred on the arm of Elizabeth Taylor at a British Embassy do for the Queen in 1976) waded in, adding a warning.

He said that the American people and others had not been sufficiently prepared for the possibility of war against Iraq.

Saddam Hussein had won the public relations battle after the Gulf War.

"We need to spend time and inform the people of America and the world of the possible consequences," he declared.

'Global threat'

Mr Tenet's testimony ranged widely across the world, seeing threats from all quarters.

Part of this scattergun approach is necessary from such an official.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei
Tenet said Iran has not moved against al-Qaeda

When the worst is predicted and does not happen, nobody minds.

If peace is promised and war follows, the result is humiliation: the Israelis made that mistake in 1973 when Egypt attacked across the Suez canal; the British ignored signs that the Argentines would attack the Falklands... the list is long.

So Tenet did not hold back.

But for what it's worth, here are some of the CIA warnings:

Al-Qaeda: "will continue to plan to attack" ; "seeking to acquire a nuclear device".

Somalia: "absence of a national government (has) offered terrorists an operational base."

Indonesia: "instability... is fuelling Islamic extremism".

Colombia: "leftist insurgents... are fuelling a cycle of violence".

Iran: "has failed to move against al-Qaeda".

Pakistan: "militant Islamic sentiments exist."

North Korea: "continues to export ballistic missiles".

Indeed Mr Tenet runs the risk of being a doom-monger of the kind which said that if the United States did not defend South Vietnam, the whole of South East Asia would fall like "dominoes".

South Vietnam did fall - but not South East Asia.

Who can say these days which warnings will turn out to be false?

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
George Tenet, Director CIA
"Bagdad has a long history of supporting terrorism"
See also:

26 Mar 02 | Middle East
Iraqi Kurds cautious on new US war
19 Mar 02 | Middle East
US says Iraq linked to al-Qaeda
19 Mar 02 | Europe
Cheney in Turkey for Iraq talks
19 Mar 02 | Middle East
Analysis: After Saddam Hussein
18 Mar 02 | Middle East
Analysis: Region opposes attack on Iraq
11 Mar 02 | Americas
Cheney's 'thinking through' tour
13 Mar 02 | Middle East
Cheney prepares US troops for action
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