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A strong case, but is time right?

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 6, 2003
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On Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented a scathing indictment of Saddam Hussein -- a man with 'utter contempt for human life' -- and a strong case for removing him and his weapons of mass destruction.

But the question remains: Is this the right war at the right time?

In a calm, compelling delivery, Powell made effective use of satellite photos, audio intercepts and other intelligence to show that Iraq has tried to conceal its biological and chemical weaponry. Hearing Iraqi military officers conspiring to deceive inspectors -- 'Remove ... the expression ... 'nerve agents,' ' one Iraqi orders another -- gave the presentation a chilling immediacy.

But it is important to remember what brought Powell and the United States to this juncture: the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. America's war on terrorism began with the clear goal of hunting down Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida members responsible for killing more than 3,000 people.

In 90 minutes, Powell presented little evidence linking Iraq to al-Qaida, much less the attacks themselves.

'What everybody will talk about is (Powell) trying to tie Saddam to al-Qaida and I don't think he did,' said Sandra Mackey, author of The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein.

In an interview broadcast Tuesday, Hussein said he had no ties to al-Qaida but 'wouldn't be ashamed to admit it' if he did.

Far more significantly, the BBC reported that British intelligence has found 'no current link' between Iraq and al-Qaida and that previous attempts to work together had collapsed because of mistrust and ideological differences between the secular Iraqi regime and the fundamentalist al-Qaida organization.

Likewise, Israel's own crack intelligence reportedly also has failed to establish ties between Iraq and al-Qaida.

Nonetheless, Powell cited a 'sinister nexus' between the two, based in large part on the previously reported activities of Abu Musab Zarqawi. An al-Qaida operative, Zarqawi purportedly runs a camp in northeastern Iraq from which he directs terrorist operations, including last year's assassination of a U.S. aid official in Jordan.

Powell said Zarqawi spent two months in Baghdad last May for medical treatment. Through an unnamed third country, the United States asked Iraq to extradite him, but it refused.

But Powell's efforts to link Iraq and al-Qaida are weakened by the fact that Zarqawi's camp is in an area controlled by the Kurds, not Hussein's government. Powell tried to get around that by maintaining that a senior Iraqi agent belongs to an organization that 'controls this corner of Iraq.'

Powell also failed to link Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks. But by repeatedly using the word 'terrorism,' he tried to plant the notion that Iraq had something to do with Sept. 11 -- or might be involved in future attacks against America.

'Our concern is the way (Iraq's) illicit weapons can be connected to terrorism and terrorist organizations that have no compunction against using them against innocent people,' he said.

In another apparent attempt to show Iraq is a direct threat to the United States, Powell noted it has enough chemical agents to cause mass casualties across an area 'five times the size of Manhattan.'

If Powell's speech failed to justify war on the basis of Iraq's tenuous al-Qaida/Sept. 11 ties, it also was short on evidence that Hussein is close to having nuclear weapons.

Powell said Iraq still lacks a key component of a bomb -- fissionable materials -- and acknowledged a 'controversy' about what it is doing with anodized aluminum tubes it has procured. Iraq says the tubing is for use in conventional rocketry; the Bush administration says such high-quality tubing must be intended for centrifuges to enrich uranium.

Powell's speech was 'not quite accurate' on two points, according to the Institute for Science and International Security, a nonpartisan organization in Washington that deals with technical aspects of nuclear proliferation.

Contrary to Powell's claim, anodized tubes are not appropriate for centrifuges and the anodization, designed to prevent corrosion, would have to be removed before the tubes could be used, said Corey Hinderstein, assistant director: 'It's not to say it would be impossible to use anodized tubes for centrifuges but it adds an extra step.'

She also challenged Powell's comment that the tubes must be intended for a nuclear program because they meet higher specifications than the United States sets for its own rocketry. 'In fact, we found European-designed rockets that had exactly this high degree of specificity,' Hinderstein said.

However, she added, Powell was correct in stressing that the tubes, regardless of their purpose, 'were still an illegal import.'

Powell was most effective in showing that Iraq has failed to account for tons of biological and chemical weapons, including anthrax, and has consistently flouted U.N. resolutions demanding disarmament. Even if Hussein does not pose an immediate threat to the United States, he clearly has -- or soon will have -- the ability to inflict enormous harm on other countries.

But would he?

Writing in the New York Times, two experts argue that Hussein is not a 'reckless aggressor' like Hitler but rather a shrewd opportunist who attacked Iran and Kuwait only because he thought he could get away with it. Moreover, both attacks had some justification, say Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago.

Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 'only after Iran's revolutionary government tried to assassinate Iraqi officials, conducted repeated border raids and tried to topple Mr. Hussein by fomenting unrest within Iraq,' they write.

And the 1990 invasion of Kuwait 'arose from a serious dispute over oil prices ... and occurred only after efforts to court Mr. Hussein led the first Bush administration to unwittingly signal that Washington would not oppose an attack.'

Walt and Mearsheimer note that Hussein has never gone to war in the face of a 'clear deterrent threat' -- like that from America's own weapons of mass destruction -- and is unlikely to do so, knowing he himself would be destroyed.

He can still be contained -- a better option than war, they say.

'Invasion and occupation would increase anti-Americanism in the Islamic world and help Osama bin Laden win more followers. Preventive war would also reinforce the growing perception that the United States is a bully, thereby jeopardizing the international unity necessary to defeat global terrorism.'

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

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