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Terrorism Havens: Iraq

Updated: December 2005

Has Iraq sponsored terrorism?

Yes. Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship provided headquarters, operating bases, training camps, and other support to terrorist groups fighting the governments of neighboring Turkey and Iran, as well as to hard-line Palestinian groups. During the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam commissioned several failed terrorist attacks on U.S. facilities. Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the State Department listed Iraq as a state sponsor of terrorism. The question of Iraq’s link to terrorism grew more urgent with Saddam’s suspected determination to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which Bush administration officials feared he might share with terrorists who could launch devastating attacks against the United States.

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Was Saddam involved in the September 11 attacks?

There is no hard evidence linking Saddam to the attacks, and Iraq denies involvement. Many commentators have noted that Baghdad failed to express sympathy for the United States after the attacks.

Does Iraq have ties with al-Qaeda?

The Bush administration insists that hatred of America has driven the two closer together, although many experts say there’s no solid proof of such links and argue that the Islamist al-Qaeda and Saddam’s secular dictatorship would be unlikely allies.

What evidence does the administration offer?

Some Iraqi militants trained in Taliban-run Afghanistan helped Ansar al-Islam, an Islamist militia based in a lawless part of northeast Iraq. The camps of Ansar fighters, who clashed repeatedly with anti-Saddam Kurds, were bombed in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the UN Security Council that Iraq was harboring a terrorist cell led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a suspected al-Qaeda affiliate and chemical and biological weapons specialist. Powell said al-Zarqawi had both planned the October 2002 assassination of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan and set up a camp in Ansar al-Islam’s territory to train terrorists in the use of chemical weapons. Powell added that senior Iraqi and al-Qaeda leaders had met at least eight times since the early 1990s.

Czech officials have also reported that Mohammed Atta, one of the September 11 ringleaders, met an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague months before the hijackings, but U.S. and Czech officials subsequently cast doubt on whether such a meeting ever happened. Al-Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan have reportedly hid in northern Iraq, but in areas beyond Saddam’s control.

Why did the United States declare war on Iraq in March 2003?

There is still some debate surrounding the Bush administration’s case for going to war with Iraq. Initially, the war was built on the need to remove Saddam Hussein, described by the administration as a dictator who was “building and hiding weapons that could enable him to dominate the Middle East.” According to the president, the invasion of Iraq was also an integral part of the larger war on terrorism, despite a lack of support from allies such as France and Germany—both of which refused to send troops. Intensifying the debate is the fact that no WMD have yet to be recovered and the belief that initial intelligence findings on Saddam’s weapons program were inaccurate.

But in the almost three years since the U.S.-led invasion took place, the dialogue surrounding the war has changed. The administration now says it also went to war to bring democracy to Iraq, in hopes it would set an example for other autocratic states in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003 and is currently standing trial. There have been three elections held in Iraq, the first in January 2005 for a preliminary government, the second in October 2005 for a constitution, and the last in December 2005 for a new government. But despite some political achievements, the insurgency remains committed and U.S. casualties have surpassed the two thousand mark, leaving many Americans doubtful that a U.S. victory is possible.

What type of terrorist groups did Iraq support under Saddam Hussein’s regime?

Primarily groups that could hurt Saddam’s regional foes. Saddam has aided the Iranian dissident group Mujahadeen-e-Khalq and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (known by its Turkish initials, PKK), a separatist group fighting the Turkish government. Moreover, Iraq has hosted several Palestinian splinter groups that oppose peace with Israel , including the mercenary Abu Nidal Organization, whose leader, Abu Nidal, was found dead in Baghdad in August 2002. Iraq has also supported the Islamist Hamas movement and reportedly channeled money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. A secular dictator, however, Saddam tended to support secular terrorist groups rather than Islamist ones such as al-Qaeda, experts say.

Have U.S.-Iraq relations always been hostile?

No. In the 1980s, following the Iranian revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis in Tehran , the United States saw Saddam as a useful regional counterweight to the Ayatollah Khomeini. Indeed, when Iraq launched a long, brutal war against Iran in 1980, the Reagan administration provided Saddam’s regime with arms, funds, and support.

When did relations sour?

U.S.-Iraq relations ruptured in August 1990, when Iraqinvaded its tiny, oil-rich neighbor of Kuwait . That prompted the UN to impose economic sanctions and eventually authorize war. In the winter of 1991, a U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqout of Kuwaitbut stopped short of ousting Saddam. After the war, the UN Security Council maintained economic sanctions on Iraq ; established two “no-fly” zones patrolled byU.S.and British planes to protect Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south; and imposed international weapons inspections to prevent Saddam from rebuilding his arsenals of WMD.

TheClintonadministration sought to contain Saddam with a combination of sanctions and arms inspections, but ultimately concluded that Saddam had to go. Bush administration officials took up the anti-Saddam cause, especially after September 11. Officials characterized Saddam’s regime as an immediate threat to America—because of its history of attacking its neighbors, using chemical weapons, supporting terrorist groups, defying UN Security Council resolutions, and seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. In his first State of the Union address after September 11, President Bush said Iraqbelonged to an “axis of evil.”

Has Iraq ever used weapons of mass destruction?

Yes. In the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, Iraqi troops repeatedly used poison gas, including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin, against Iranian soldiers. Iranian officials have also accused Iraq of dropping mustard-gas bombs on Iranian villages. Human Rights Watch reports that Iraq frequently used nerve agents and mustard gas against Iraqi Kurds living in the country’s north. In March 1988, Saddam’s forces reportedly killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the town of Halabja with chemical weapons.