An Al Qaeda- Iraq link materializing?

The Bush administration has never been able to make a convincing case of the connection between Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorist network. Reports of a meeting between hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague in the months before Sept. 11 remain unsubstantiated. Indeed, there were signs pointing to hostility between the Islamic extremists and the secular regime of Saddam Hussein. Osama bin Laden was said to have called Mr. Hussein an "apostate" and an "infidel."

But more recently there have been indications that the two have been finding common cause in the conflict with America, at least for propaganda purposes. The bin Laden audiotape, delivered to the Al Jazeera TV network in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Nov. 12, three days before the tensely awaited deadline for an Iraqi response to the UN weapons inspection resolution, offered support to the Baghdad regime. Bin Laden (the tape is now generally accepted as authentic) likened the suffering of the Iraqis to the plight of the Palestinians and said recent terrorist attacks were "merely a reciprocal reaction to what Bush, the modern-day Pharaoh, did by murdering our children in Iraq." The terrorist leader warned several nations by name against aiding "the criminal gang in Washington" and threatened retaliation against Islamic countries "allied with the tyrannical US government."

Iraq seemed to acknowledge the link with Al Qaeda in its intemperate letter to the UN delivered the next day, agreeing to "deal with" the demand to resume weapons inspection. The letter said that American aggression against Muslims and Arabs was the basic reason the US had to close embassies and "restrict its interests in many parts of the world while reaping the hatred of the peoples of the world."

Since then, a written statement from Al Qaeda, received by Al Jazeera addresses Americans, saying, "You are placing Muslims under siege in Iraq, where children die every day ... how weird that you do not care for 1.5 million Iraqi children who died under siege but when 3,000 of your compatriots died, the whole world was shaken." This is as far as Al Qaeda has ever gone in embracing the cause of Iraq. If there was no such link between the two before, they certainly seem interested in establishing that there is one now and that Islamic terrorists are rallying around this secular - but anti-American - regime.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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