Disclosures about alleged links between Iraq and the al-Qaida terror group have so far been viewed with some scepticism, and been seen as part of an attempt to win over public opinion in the build-up to military action.
Officials from the United States government today conceded that their evidence on links between the Baghdad regime and the terror group were not as solid as the information they had on Iraq’s weapons programmes.
The US information is said to centre on the movements of one of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden’s lieutenants, Abu Musab Zarqawi, who travelled to Baghdad last summer for medical treatment and is now believed to be working with a Kurdish Islamic extremist group in northern Iraq.
The evidence has been presented after last week’s State of the Union speech, in which US President George Bush invoked a terrifying scenario involving al-Qaida operatives with access to Saddam Hussein’s hidden stocks of chemical and biological weapons.
Mr Bush said the US had evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications and suspects currently in captivity that Saddam was involved in “aiding and protecting” al-Qaida.
He was echoed by Tony Blair who told MPs last week that the British government was aware of links between al-Qaida and the Iraqi regime, although it was not clear how far they went.
Mr Blair said at Prime Minister’s Questions that that the British government had no evidence linking Iraq to the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, but said that a connection with
al-Qaida had been established.
“We do not know of evidence linking Iraq to al-Qaida in circumstances concerning the September 11 attack,” he said.
“We do know of links between al-Qaida and Iraq. We cannot be sure of the exact extent of those links.”
The British Foreign Office said it believed al-Qaida operatives had been in Iraq with the “knowledge and acquiescence” of the Baghdad government.
Daniel Neep, head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Britain's Royal United Services Institute, said so far there was no evidence of any “real credible” links between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein.
“Back in the immediate aftermath of September 11 there was a lot of media speculation trying to link Iraq in some way which failed miserably at the time,” he said.
“The best they could come up with was a meeting which allegedly took place between an Iraqi diplomat and Mohammed Atta, (one of the hijackers) which apparently took place in Prague several years ago. Since then not much else has come up,” he said.
He said of the US information that an al-Qaida lieutenant had been in Baghdad and was now with an Islamic extremist group, he said: “This does not prove a great deal. There are individuals with links to al Qaida in many countries around the world.”
Thomas Withington, a defence analyst and research associate at the Centre for Defence Studies at King’s College, London, said Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
“In Osama bin Laden, you have got a figure who is an arch Conservative and a strong Islamist whose basis for anti-Americanism is effectively religious,” he said.
“Saddam Hussein’s anti-Americanism is more political, and religion takes a back seat. Saddam really sees himself as a modern Saladin figure reunifying the Arab nations under his flag.”