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Replays Show Powell Did Not Score
Published on Tuesday, February 11, 2003 by the Toronto Star
Replays Show Powell Did Not Score
by Thomas Walkom
 

How long a week can be. Just six days ago, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was being lauded for the masterful way in which he detailed Iraq's crimes and deceptions to the United Nations Security Council.

"Disturbing and persuasive," was the verdict of Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham.

Now, six days later, it seems there is much less to Powell's indictment than meets the eye.

A British intelligence report that he used and praised is now revealed to have been a fraud, cribbed largely from the out-of-date work of a U.S. graduate student.

Powell's satellite photos, while riveting, proved little — except to those who are convinced that every factory with a guard hut and truck is a chemical weapons dump.

Even Powell's selective telephone intercepts are open to interpretation. Common sense suggests that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons hidden somewhere. But the Powell tapes neither prove nor disprove that.

Nor do they address the more telling question: Does Iraq have the means to deliver these weapons any significant distance? (The conclusion of the U.N. weapons inspectors on this latter question, incidentally, is a qualified no.)

But the real failure of Powell's case has to do with Iraq's alleged links to Al Qaeda terrorists.

Whether or not Iraq is in violation of Security Council resolution 1441 is interesting but not particularly important. Many countries are in violation of U.N. norms.

In its treatment of prisoners of war, the U.S. itself is almost certainly contravening the Geneva Accords. When Canada and others made war on Yugoslavia over Kosovo without Security Council authorization, they were probably in violation of the U.N. charter.

But usually the world community acts only against countries it believes to be an immediate threat. If Iraq were indeed arming terrorists to attack Europe and North America, it would be such a threat. But is it?

In the weeks leading up to Powell's U.N. address, The New York Times reported earlier this month, American officialdom was split over this question, with the Central Intelligence Agency saying no and the hawks around Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saying yes.

Powell, The Times reported, was fed his information from the hawks.

Following their line, Powell told the U.N. that a terrorist camp in northeastern Iraq is producing chemicals and poisons for attacks on Europe. He also said its key link to Iraqi president Saddam Hussein is an Al Qaeda "associate" named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

And then he noted, almost as an afterthought, that this camp was operating in a part of Iraq not controlled by Saddam's government.

More precisely, the alleged camp is operating in the Kurdish area of Iraq in the so-called no-fly zone, protected by U.S. and British warplanes.

Is this camp, in American-protected Kurdistan, a sophisticated weapons factory? A gaggle of journalists who visited it late last week found no evidence.

"There is no sign of chemical weapons anywhere," wrote Guardian reporter Luke Harding on Saturday. "Only the smell of paraffin and vegetable ghee used for cooking."

Are the Kurdish Islamists known as Ansar al-Islam, who control this camp, connected to Saddam? Probably not, concluded the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based agency financed in part by the Canadian government.

In a report titled The Mouse that Roared, the think-tank concludes that Ansar al-Islam is merely a "minor irritant in local Kurdish politics."

According to unnamed German intelligence sources cited by the Wall Street Journal, there is no evidence that either Ansar al-Islam or Zarqawi are linked to Saddam. One could argue that the Germans would say this; they are, after all, opposed to war with Iraq.

Curiously, however, unnamed U.S. officials interviewed by the Washington Post say the same thing. Indeed, one told the Post that Zarqawi, while clearly a villain (he's alleged to have masterminded the assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan last year), may not be part of Al Qaeda.

Though Powell spoke of Saddam having an agent in the Ansar al-Islam camp, unnamed U.S. officials later explained in the Post that this agent might be spying on the Kurdish Islamic group, not running it.

In short, the Al Qaeda, Iraqi poison factory controlled by Saddam that Powell spoke of may not be Al Qaeda, may not be a poison factory, and is almost certainly not controlled by Saddam.

At one level, none of this matters. U.S. President George W. Bush has made it clear that he's going to war. While Prime Minister Jean Chrétien remains characteristically opaque, it seems that Canada will adopt its traditional role of obsequious, if minimalist, acquiescence to Washington's desires.

But as that war runs its course, the rest of us should keep in mind the dubious rationale that set it in play, particularly when — after this stage is over — an enthusiastic Bush Jr. identifies his next target.

Thomas Walkom's column appears on Tuesday.

Copyright 1996-2003. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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