Bin Laden's voice aside, war on Iraq is not war on Al Qaeda

Just when the Bush administration was finalizing preparations for a war against Iraq, Osama bin Laden speaks up again. In an audiotape aired Tuesday, a voice judged to be Mr. bin Laden's called on Muslims everywhere to rise up against the US if Washington attacks Iraq.

This move raises the stakes in the US-Baghdad contest considerably. Washington will need smart minds much more than smart weapons if it is to avoid global chaos in the weeks ahead.

In particular, Washington needs to avoid stepping into bin Laden's trap by assuming that he speaks for politically active Muslims everywhere. He doesn't. Different groups of Muslims in various parts of the world are concerned by widely differing issues. But nearly all those issues can be resolved through serious engagement in negotiations. Let's continue to pursue that path wherever possible, rather than letting bin Laden take us all down the path of violence.

Right now, the vast majority of the world's Muslims strongly oppose the US launching what they see as a quite avoidable war against Iraq. (Most non-Muslims worldwide seem to share this view, too.) With his latest message, bin Laden seeks to insinuate himself into the leadership of the sprawling collection of societies known loosely as the "world Muslim community."

If the US blindly goes ahead with the threatened attack on Iraq, will that bring bin Laden closer to his goal, or further from it?

My judgment, based on more than 25 years of studying Muslim issues, is that it will bring bin Laden much, much closer.

The tragic irony in this is that, just days before the airing of the bin Laden tape, Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his presentation at the UN, significantly inflated the strength of the link between Saddam Hussein's regime and bin Laden's Al Qaeda. Now, as in the Yiddish folktale "The Golem," bad dreams seem to be taking on real substance.

In his Feb. 5 speech, Mr. Powell laid out the best evidence he had for the existence of what he called, "the potentially ... sinister nexus between Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorist network."

But the case he made at that time for the existence of this nexus was thin and deeply unconvincing. To note this is not to stick up for Saddam Hussein. He's a very abusive ruler with a long record of deception on significant weapons-related issues. But prudence still dictates that the Bush administration needs to get its facts straight about the Baghdad-Al Qaeda nexus.

The key piece of evidence on this in Powell's speech was a slide showing a grainy satellite image of a dozen small buildings grouped around a courtyard. "Terrorist poison and explosives factory, Khurmal," the caption read.

"This camp is located in northeastern Iraq," Powell said, alleging that the members of a shadowy terrorist group called the Zarqawi network were using the factory for "teaching its operatives how to produce ricin and other poisons."

Scary stuff, yes? The problem is, not much of it seems to be true. Khurmal is not under Hussein's control at all: It lies in the part of northern Iraq controlled by the Kurds and protected by the US-British air umbrella.

Further, villagers in Khurmal hotly deny that their village hosts any terrorists at all. On Feb. 5, they showed Western reporters around Khurmal and told them that the nearest encampment of Islamic extremists was in another village several miles away.

The politics of Iraqi Kurdistan are very complex. But the International Crisis Group (ICG),a research organization in Brussels whose analysts are very familiar with the region, has cast serious doubt on the US claims. Some of these analysts worked on documenting Hussein's use of chemical weapons against Kurdish villagers in the 1980s - and they're not "soft" on him at all.

An ICG report released last week - "Radical Islam In Iraqi Kurdistan: The Mouse That Roared?" assumed that when talking about the Zarqawi network, Powell was referring to "Ansar al-Islam," a Kurdish Islamic-extremist group that controls an enclave near - not in - Khurmal. It noted that there is little independent evidence of links between Ansar and Baghdad. Such evidence as has been presented came, it said, from the notably unreliable source of "confessions" obtained from captured Ansar militants, sometimes under duress. ICG judged that it would be very hard for people or military supplies to pass between Baghdad and the Ansar enclave because a secular Kurdish group hostile to both of them controls all the routes between them.

"The only thing that is indisputable," the report concludes, "is that the [Ansar] group could not survive without the support of powerful factions in neighbouring Iran, its sole lifeline to the outside world."

Powell set out on Feb. 5 to prove the existence of a significant nexus between Al Qaeda and Baghdad. He failed to make that case. And his case for invasion has not been strengthened just because six days later, bin Laden let his voice of hateful incitement be heard again.

It simply gives us all some salutary reminders: bin Laden still exists, and is still able to get his message out. He is poised to take advantage of disquiet throughout the Muslim world.

Ending bin Laden's incitement and incapacitating Al Qaeda's ability to wreak its potentially deadly consequences have to be our top priorities. As for Hussein, he can continue to be dealt with through containment. As I said, it's a time for smart minds, not smart bombs.

Helena Cobban is the author on five books on international issues.

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