Walid Phares thumbed a sheaf of documents, all in Arabic and nearly all bearing the spherical slogan of Iraq's intelligence service, or Mukhabarat. The Middle East scholar, a Lebanese-American Christian who speaks four languages and is a recognized expert on Islamic militants and terrorism, has interrupted a sick day (prior engagement with a root canal) in order to evaluate 42 just-leaked intelligence documents confiscated by U.S. forces in Iraq.
Moistening his finger and translating out loud, Mr. Phares read from the pages in his third-floor office in downtown Washington, where he is taking a year off from teaching at Florida Atlantic University to serve as senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He didn't notice as his narrating voice rose with incredulity. Finishing, he rapped the papers with his fingers and concluded: "This is a watershed. This is big."
Mr. Phares is one of at least four eminent Middle East experts to agree that the documents-published for the first time last week-demonstrate that Saddam Hussein collaborated with and supported Islamic terrorist groups, including the current terror nemesis in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The papers, obtained by Cybercast News Service (CNS) and released Oct. 4, "establish irreversible evidence that there were strategic relations between the Baathist regime and Islamist groups that became al-Qaeda," Mr. Phares said after reviewing them at WORLD's request on Oct. 6. In addition, the documents link al-Zarqawi-associated groups throughout the Middle East, including al-Qaeda, on Saddam's payroll and acting under his direct authority.
Evidence and the word of experts, however, is having little effect on the John Kerry campaign, which has staked its bid for the White House on what it calls a flawed rationale for war in Iraq. Only hours after the CNS website absorbed so many hits over the revelations that its server crashed, vice-presidential candidate John Edwards blasted the president's war strategy in a televised debate with Vice President Dick Cheney. "There is no connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of September 11th-period," Mr. Edwards said. "In fact, any connection with al-Qaeda is tenuous at best."
Sen. John Kerry, too, insists on the stump that the president's "two main rationales-weapons of mass destruction and the al-Qaeda/Sept. 11 connection-have been proved false."
But the documents suggest otherwise. They include an 11-page memo, dated Jan. 25, 1993, listing "parties related to our system . . . expert in executing the required missions." The memo cites Palestinian, Sudanese, and Asian terror groups, and shows a developing relationship with groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, including Mr. al-Zarqawi, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar-figures who are now on the U.S. most-wanted list for ongoing assaults in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Jan. 25, 1993, memo also describes an intelligence service meeting with a splinter group led by Mohammed Omar Abdel-Rahman. Mr. Abdel-Rahman is a son of the blind Egyptian, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, accused of inspiring the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and arrested in 1994 for targeting New York landmarks. Pakistani officials caught the younger Abdel-Rahman last year, and say he helped lead authorities to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, one of the 9/11 attack planners.
A separate memo, dated March 18, 1993, asks intelligence officers to provide "details of Arab martyrs who got trained" in conjunction with post-Gulf War "committees of martyrs act." In reply another office supplied 92 names with nationalities, all "trained inside the 'martyr act camp' that belonged to our directorate." In all, 40 are linked to Palestinian groups, 21 are Sudanese, and others range from Eritrea, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon, and Egypt. Most of the trainees completed a government-sponsored course on Nov. 24, 1990, and were sent on missions throughout the Arabian Peninsula.
Accompanying the memos are separate notations signed by Saddam Hussein's secretary, suggesting the president himself had reviewed and endorsed each action.
"Saddam was personally overseeing the details" of training terrorists and assigning their missions, Mr. Phares said. "From 1993 on, Saddam Hussein connected with Sunni fundamentalists in the Arab world. He was in touch with the founding members of al-Qaeda."
CNS enlisted its own cast of experts-a former weapons inspector with the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), a retired CIA counterterrorism official with experience in Iraq, and a former Clinton advisor on Iraq-to review the documents prior to publication. CNS reporter Scott Wheeler received the data from an unnamed "senior government official" who is not a political appointee. The source said the documents have not been made public because Bush administration officials have "thousands and thousands" of similar documents waiting to be translated and "it is unlikely they even know this exists." Former Clinton advisor Laurie Mylroie, who taught at Harvard and the U.S. Naval College and authored two books on Iraq under Saddam Hussein, told CNS the find represents "the most complete set of documents relating Iraq to terrorism, including Islamic terrorism."
Bruce Tefft, the retired CIA official, described the documents as "accurate." He cited as particularly significant the Iraq link to al-Jihad al Tajdeed. Tajdeed is allied with Mr. al-Zarqawi. Its website currently posts Mr. al-Zarqawi's speeches, messages, and videos-including images portraying the Jordanian terrorist actively participating in the beheading of American Nicholas Berg and, just last month, the beheading of U.S. engineer Eugene Armstrong. At 37, Mr. al-Zarqawi is considered the main instigator behind suicide bombings, assassination attempts, and beheadings in Iraq. The connections "are too close to be accidental," Mr. Tefft told CNS, suggesting "one of the first operational contacts between an al-Qaeda group and Iraq."
Mr. al-Zarqawi is often portrayed as a lone ranger, a cult figure running a nascent uprising in response to so-called U.S. imperialism. Yet these latest documents, along with other emerging reports, reveal Mr. al-Zarqawi's "authority stemmed from specific instructions and guidance" received from Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders. According to terror expert Yossef Bodansky in his new book, The Secret History of the Iraq War, intelligence data shows Mr. al-Zarqawi entered northern Iraq from Iran shortly before the war to oversee a sophisticated guerrilla-war plan crafted in conjunction with Iraqi intelligence agents and Saddam himself.
In addition to the terror-group connections, several pages of the leaked documents also demonstrate that Saddam possessed mustard gas and anthrax, both considered weapons of mass destruction. They describe Iraq's purchase of five kilograms of mustard gas in August 2000 and three vials of malignant pustule, a term for anthrax, the following month-all at a time when Saddam prohibited UN weapons inspectors from working in Iraq. The purchase orders include gas masks, filters, sterilization, and decontamination equipment.
With this latest release of Iraqi documents, and the assembly of nonpartisan experts standing by them, the Kerry campaign will have to work harder to dismiss Bush administration actions as "a rush to war."
"What you see reading through these documents is that the [Persian Gulf] war did not end. This is a continuation of that war," Ms. Mylroie told WORLD. Saddam's aim, she said, was to "pick off the  coalition" with terror attacks as a means of turning Middle East allies against the United States. That tactic emboldened the kind of transnational terror network described in the documents, continuing through 2001 and beyond. "What is interesting is that Iraq was working with Islamic militants of all stripes. Saddam did not make a distinction between Baathists or Sunnis or Shiites or anyone else," Ms. Mylroie said.
Such conclusions, she said, may prompt critics to call her paranoid and to denigrate the importance of this recent find as outdated and fanciful. But Ms. Mylroie has been called a conspiracy theorist before. Ignoring the evidence of state-sponsored terrorism and its ongoing threat is a zero-sum game for Bush opponents. Focusing only on the role of individual terror fanatics like Mr. al-Zarqawi, says Ms. Mylroie, does "make the terrorist threat appear as terrifying as possible. But authorities can do virtually nothing about terrorism when it is depicted this way."
Despite "missteps" in prosecuting the war, "the war was necessary because Saddam was involved in 9/11," Ms. Mylroie said. "There is no question that Saddam is part of a terror war."
For the Kerry campaign the revelations have come late enough in the election season to inflict lasting damage on his foreign-policy credibility. For U.S. and Iraqi forces fighting terror in Iraq, they have come not a moment too soon.
-with reporting by Priya Abraham