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29 January 2010

Blair, Iraq and al-Qaeda

Did the former PM push links between Saddam and Bin Laden?

By Mehdi Hasan

Tony Blair has mentioned Abu Musab al-Zarqawi at the Chilcot inquiry. He referred to al-Zarqawi being based in Saddam’s Iraq prior to the invasion in 2003.


Terror experts agree that al-Zarqawi had no links to Osama Bin Laden at that stage, nor did he have any proven links to Saddam Hussein and his regime. Nor did the Jordanian terrorist formally merge his organisation with al-Qaeda, and pledge allegiance to Bin Laden, until October 2004 — more than a year after the Anglo-American invasion.

As I wrote in the NS cover story this week, the manner in which Blair pushed false and fraudulent links between Iraq and al-Qaeda in the run-up to war is one of the largely unexplored areas of this inquiry:

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It is often forgotten that Blair, on more than one occasion, attempted to make connections between Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Many assume that the suggestion of links between Bin Laden and Saddam was made by the Bush administration. But on 21 January 2003, Blair told the liaison committee of MPs: “There is some intelligence evidence about loose links between al-Qaeda and various people in Iraq . . . It would not be correct to say there is no evidence whatever of linkages between al-Qaeda and Iraq.”

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On 29 January 2003, a Foreign Office spokesman went further, saying: “We believe that there have been, and still are, some al-Qaeda operatives in parts of Iraq controlled by Baghdad. It is hard to imagine that they are there without the knowledge and acquiescence of the Iraqi government.”

Since the 2003 invasion, Iraq has become a haven for al-Qaeda terrorists. Toppling the regime in Baghdad has emboldened Bin Laden and his client operations. But were there pre-war links between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaeda leadership?

“The terrorism experts and CIA were pretty convinced at the time that there were none,” says Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer who is one of the world’s leading experts on Islamist terrorism. “Al-Qaeda hated Saddam’s regime.”

A classified document, written by defence intelligence staff in early January 2003, flatly contradicted the Downing Street and Foreign Office claims made later that same month. It noted how Bin Laden viewed Iraq’s ruling Ba’ath party as anti-Islamic. To him, it was an “apostate regime”. “His aims are in ideological conflict with present-day Iraq,” the document concluded.

“There was no link whatsoever between Bin Laden and Saddam,” says Sageman. “It was all spurious.” Indeed, the focus on “spurious” links between al-Qaeda and “people in Iraq”, Sageman tells me, exposed a “lack of integrity” on the part of the US and UK governments.