Iraq: the phantom threat

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At this very moment, US intelligence personnel are poring over documents, uncovering the depth of the anti-American plotting of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network.

Al Qaeda prisoners are being interrogated in an effort to unlock past secrets and interdict future threats to the United States and the world. As this investigation proceeds, the web of terrorist networks forged by Mr. bin Laden in his struggle against the West is becoming clear.

Some of the exposed links are not surprising - including Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Notably absent is Iraq. Given the spate of post-Sept. 11 media reports linking Iraq with bin Laden, one would expect a flood of evidence coming from Afghanistan confirming such a relationship.

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Even the alleged meetings between Mohammed Atta - a suspected leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers - and an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague are inconclusive. The Czech government has sent conflicting reports concerning this meeting and, even if the meeting took place, the supposed topic of discussion - an attack on a Radio Free Europe radio transmitter used to broadcast anti-Hussein programming - is a far cry from the 9/11 attacks.

The lack of documentation of an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection in this intelligence trove should lead to the questioning of the original source of such speculation, as well as the motivations of those who continue to peddle the "Iraqi connection" theory. Foremost among them are opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and his American sponsors, in particular Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, former CIA Director James Woolsey, and former Undersecretary of State Richard Perle.

During my service as a UN weapons inspector, I had responsibility for liaison with Mr. Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress to gather "intelligence information" derived from Chalabi's erstwhile network of defectors and in-country sources. This information turned out to be more flash than substance. For example, there was the "engineer" who allegedly worked on Saddam Hussein's palaces who spoke of a network of underground tunnels where crates of documents were allegedly hidden during inspections. Inspectors did find a drainage tunnel. However, despite the fact that no documents were discovered, Chalabi took the tunnel's existence as confirmation that documents also existed, and spoke as if they were an established fact.

In the same manner, when Mr. Wolfowitz and company needed a link between Iraq and the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, Chalabi dutifully trotted out a series of heretofore "undiscovered" defectors who have "information" about the training of "Arab" hijackers by Iraqi intelligence at a facility near the Iraqi town of Salman Pak. The site is reported to be fully equipped with, among other things, a commercial airliner upon which the trainees can practice their trade, conveniently enough, in "groups of five" and "armed only with knives and their bare hands." The facility at Salman Pak does exist; its use as an Al Qaeda training camp is unsubstantiated.

More recently, following President Bush's demand that Iraq permit the return of UN weapons inspectors or else "suffer the consequences," Chalabi conveniently produced another "defector" who allegedly had access to Saddam's secret plans to hide underground biological and chemical weapons facilities from international detection. I spent more than six years investigating the organizations the defector claimed to work for, and although elements of his story ring true, the details used to embellish his tale on weapons of mass destruction are impossible to pin down or, in some cases, just plain wrong.

The UN stopped using Chalabi's information as a basis for conducting inspections once the tenuous nature of his sources and his dubious motivations became clear. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the mainstream US media, which give prominent coverage to sources of information that, had they not been related to Hussein's Iraq, would normally be immediately dismissed.

This media coverage serves policy figures gunning for a wider war. It generates a frenzy of speculation concerning Iraq in the public arena, which accepts at face value this information despite the fact that almost none of what Chalabi has purveyed to the media about Iraq has turned out to be accurate.

There is a substantial lack of clarity and credible sources on the actual nature of the Iraqi threat to the US. A wider debate on US policy toward Iraq is imperative, especially in light of the increasing war talk out of Washington. Rather than relying on information from dubious sources, let's put all the facts on the table. The conclusions drawn from such a debate could pull us back from the brink of an unnecessary and costly war.

• Scott Ritter is former chief of the Concealment Investigations Unit for the UN Special Commission on Iraq.

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