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More than a manhunt?

International | Not everyone agrees that Osama bin Laden is the most important perpetrator

Issue: "Mourning has broken," Sept. 29, 2001

More than a manhunt?

Not everyone agrees that Osama bin Laden is the most important perpetrator

» by Mindy Belz

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President Bush all but put a price on Osama bin Laden's head last week. He told Americans that Mr. bin Laden is the government's "prime suspect" in the attacks and that the U.S. wanted him "dead or alive." But a number of terrorism experts believe the Bush administration could be focusing on the wrong man. Rather than closing in on the reclusive Mr. bin Laden at his base camp in Afghanistan, they say, officials should be looking to Baghdad, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"You cannot contain a figure like Saddam. You cannot contain someone who will kill 5,000 people. They are one and the same," said author and Middle East expert Laurie Mylroie.

Ms. Mylroie (pronounced "mill-roy") believes that the bin Laden network, as armed and well supplied as it may be, does not possess the organizational capability to coordinate the four-pronged attack launched against the United States Sept. 11. Smuggling alien pilots through security at separate airports and onto different airlines at the same time required a level of intelligence gathering and communications more calibrated to a state apparatus than a terrorist cell. With Mr. bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization, "You have people with religious fervor but not usually technically competent," said Ms. Mylroie.

While Mr. bin Laden's ties to a number of Islamic governments in the Arab world have been established, "the top state is Iraq," according to Ms. Mylroie. "We are at war with Iraq. The Gulf War never ended. We had a halt to fighting there instead," she told WORLD.

The Bush administration, she said, "wants to talk about a war on terrorism; I want us to talk about a war on somebody. And that would be Hussein." To wage a war on terrorism, she said, is impossible. "You have to set objectives that are clear and concrete, not vague and abstract."

Since fighting ended in the Gulf War in 1991, the United States has led the effort to invoke sanctions against Iraq and to enforce a no-fly zone over its northern tier. A United Nations-sponsored inspection program to end Iraq's production of chemical and biological weapons fell apart in 1998 after a brief bombing campaign by the United States and Great Britain. Those events coincided with the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. They in turn fueled speculation that Mr. bin Laden's terrorist network had linked arms with Saddam Hussein. While holding different views of Islam, Ms. Mylroie says, Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Hussein share one supreme goal: to rid the Muslim world of Western influence and U.S. military domination.

Until Sept. 11, Ms. Mylroie's hypothesis drew little attention, particularly from the foreign policy establishment of which she is a part. As a fellow at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, she co-authored a book about Saddam Hussein in 1990 with New York Times reporter Judith Miller. She has taught courses at the U.S. Naval War College, and was an advisor on Iraq to Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign. The Clinton administration, she said, never really understood the kind of threat posed by Saddam Hussein. That is why, in the aftermath of both the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings, U.S. prosecutors chose to focus on bringing to justice individual suspects-hence Mr. bin Laden's appearance on the FBI's most wanted list.

Last year, armed with what she calls a "smoking gun," Ms. Mylroie wrote Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein's Unfinished War Against America. In documented prose that reads more like a detective story, she connects the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center to Mr. Hussein's regime. The convicted bomber in the case, Ramzi Yousef, used falsified documents once belonging to a Kuwaiti citizen. Iraq obtained those papers during its occupation of Kuwait in 1990. In the courtroom, however, U.S. prosecutors pursued Mr. Yousef, rather than Iraq, furthering the idea that the 1993 bombing was a "stateless" crime.

After this month's terrorist attacks, Ms. Mylroie is not alone in fingering Saddam Hussein. Israeli intelligence agents who briefed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the hours after the attacks cited Iraq as the prime perpetrator. In an interview with a German news agency, former Israeli intelligence agent Gad Shimron said Mr. bin Laden is the "usual suspect," but would not have succeeded without Iraq. "As far as I know, [bin Laden] is sitting somewhere in Afghanistan, a country with no infrastructure. He has a cell phone which the Americans monitor," he said. The CIA also last week began looking into reports that Mohammed Atta, one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, met with a senior Iraqi intelligence officer in Europe earlier this year.

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