Diary

Jason Burke on the questionable link between Saddam and al-Qaida

Since the British and Americans set up the no-fly zones that allowed the Kurds to establish their mini-state in northern Iraq, the Iraqis have stayed behind a row of fortifications on the high ground along the ceasefire line. From within Kurdistan, you can see a series of squat, square bunkers, on the hills three miles to the south, among the scruffy pines and burnt patches of grass. The Iraqi Army, I was told, occasionally take potshots at shepherds who venture into no man’s land in search of pasture. Except it isn’t really a no man’s land, because the Kurds, well aware that resisting Saddam’s tanks and helicopters would be impossible, haven’t bothered to fortify their frontline. In fact, the Kurds who live closest to the Iraqis are a group of senior citizens resettled by a Western aid organisation in some new breeze-block, three-room houses in the southern suburbs of the town of Chamchamal. They wouldn’t be much of a match for the Republican Guard.

As I write, we wait for Tony Blair to publish his ‘dossier’ – that is, to reveal the evidence for Saddam’s terrorist links and his non-conventional weapons capacity. No doubt we won’t have to wait much beyond that to see the B-52s back in action over the hills south of Chamchamal. He has previously spoken of ‘broad linkages’ between al-Qaida and Saddam. Last month I went to Kurdistan to see what I could find.

Sulaimaniya, forty miles from Chamchamal, is an open city surrounded by sandy hills, with parks and, in the summer, open-air kebab restaurants and watermelon sellers in the streets. Like all of Iraqi Kurdistan, it has changed a lot in the 11 years since I was last there. The two major Kurdish factions, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), fought a short, vicious civil war, but now ‘tolerate each other’, a PUK official told me. Last month I stayed in the new Sulaimaniya Palace Hotel, which has a restaurant at the top where Iraqi Kurdistan’s nouveaux riches – smugglers, foreigners or UN employees, who are paid twice as much as government ministers – can get bad pasta and Turkish beer for $10.

I met Muhammad Mansour Shahab in the office of the Deputy Chief of Investigations of the PUK Intelligence Service. It was about ten o’clock in the morning, and already hot. The sun, reflecting from the whitewashed courtyard outside, glared through the window. The Deputy Chief himself, handgun jammed in the waist of his brown slacks, had gone to a meeting. Shahab, my translator and I sat and looked at one another.

Shahab had been brought out from the cells a few minutes earlier. The conditions, he told me, were fine. The prisoners could even watch television. Earlier I had seen the prison yard where about forty men paced up and down. They had looked healthy enough and so did Shahab. He was arrested early last year trying to cross from the Kurdish-controlled section of northern Iraq to Baghdad’s territory. He’d been on his way from Iran. He had confessed to being an Iraqi agent who’d been sent to kill someone in the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, the Baghdad-backed terrorist group operating within Iran. Quite who he had killed and why wasn’t immediately clear. His Kurdish captors were unsure why he had been given a seven-year prison sentence. Anyway, the contract killing was only part of his story.

For the first six months of his imprisonment he had kept the rest to himself. Then, last October, he told a fellow prisoner, who told the guards, who told the Deputy Chief of Investigations. When, in the early spring, a journalist from the New Yorker was in Sulaimaniya, Shahab told him, too. The resulting story, by Jeffrey Goldberg, was published in March under the headline ‘The Threat of Saddam’. It announced that ‘the Kurds may have evidence’ of Saddam’s ‘ties to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network’. The main link was Shahab. Hawks in Washington are keen to find such links. The joint FBI and CIA investigation into a report by Czech Intelligence that Mohammed Atta met an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague has shown that Atta was almost certainly in the US at the time. The lack of evidence with which to inculpate Saddam has been a problem. The New Yorker’s story thus caused some excitement; Goldberg was interviewed by CNN.

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