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Interview: Jeffrey Goldberg Discusses Possible Links Between Iraq and al Qaeda and Evidence That the Iraqis May be Trying to Evade Weapons Inspectors

All Things Considered: February 4, 2003

Iraq and Al Qaeda

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Today, British television broadcast an interview that was done by a retired member of Parliament with Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi leader again denied having weapons of mass destruction, and further denied any connection with Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization.

SOUNDBITE OF BRITISH TELEVISION BROADCAST

President SADDAM HUSSEIN (Iraq): (Through Translator) If we had a relationship with al-Qaeda and we believed in that relationship, we wouldn't be ashamed to admit it. Therefore, I would like to tell you directly, and also through you to anyone who is interested to know, that we have no relationship with al-Qaeda.

SIEGEL: That's Saddam Hussein on British television.

The question of Iraq's relationship to al-Qaeda has been debated within the US government. Competing arguments have harnessed bits of evidence that taken independently may not prove anything. Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker writes this week about this debate, which he says is over both conclusions and methods. And Jeffrey Goldberg joins us now.

And, Jeffrey, I'd like you, first, to tell us the story as best you know it of a man named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Mr. JEFFREY GOLDBERG (The New Yorker): Zarqawi is a high-ranking al-Qaeda operative who runs a subgroup of al-Qaeda. He is a specialist in chemical and biological weapons according to several European intelligence agencies, and he is most notable right now because he washed up mysteriously in Baghdad several months ago and was hospitalized in Baghdad. He was wounded, apparently, fighting the Americans in Afghanistan. The question is: How does someone--he's a one-legged, bearded, Arab-Afghan fighter. How does someone like that wash up in Baghdad, in hospital, in a country that's a secret police-run state without the leadership of this country knowing and approving of his presence?

SIEGEL: And what is he supposed to have done since he was in the hospital in Baghdad?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, according to the information I have, he was in the hospital and he apparently has relations with a group in northern Iraq that is said to be co-sponsored by Saddam and al-Qaeda. When the Jordanians, who have been seeking Zarqawi for some time for arrest, requested his extradition to Jordan, he disappeared from the hospital and has not been seen since, although American intelligence believes he was floating around Baghdad for quite a while.

SIEGEL: So this man might personify a link conceivably between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

Mr. GOLDBERG: He is one of several men who might personify a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

SIEGEL: Newsweek, by the way, quotes German police documents this week as saying that actually he's much closer to Iran. That's where he really does his work. He's not in partnership with the Iraqis.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Right. This is a competing claim. There are a lot of American officials who would say, `No, it's more on the side of Iraq.' But again, sponsorship does not have to be monogamous.

SIEGEL: It's reported that Colin Powell is expected at the UN tomorrow to reveal recorded conversations between Iraqis which show, we read, that the Iraqis have been trying to evade weapons inspectors.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Right.

SIEGEL: Do you have sense that there are any similar intelligence intercepts which similarly, and equally conclusively, show that they're connected to al-Qaeda in some way?

Mr. GOLDBERG: I have no information in terms of intercepts. It wouldn't surprise me at all if they found those. However, I think what has happened over the past year is that as the CIA has captured a good number of al-Qaeda operatives, high-ranking al-Qaeda operatives, and has debriefed them, interrogated them or have the Jordanians do those interrogations, they've developed some information about the links between al-Qaeda and Saddam. And I think he'll be bringing some of that information out before the UN, although my assumption is that most of his presentation will be on the weapons of mass destruction issue.

SIEGEL: In all of your reporting on al-Qaeda and Iraq, what's the strongest piece of evidence you've seen of all that would suggest there really is a link between the two?

Mr. GOLDBERG: I would have to say it's something that I learned of just recently in having this new story, which is that in the mid-'90s, a series of emissaries went from Afghanistan, earlier from Sudan, to Baghdad in order to convince the Iraqi Intelligence Service to provide al-Qaeda with chemical weapons training in Afghanistan. According to my sources, those emissaries succeeded and Iraqis did, in fact, help al-Qaeda in the teaching of the use of poison gas. This is also, by the way, a claim that's not my own. The CIA director in October said as much in a letter to Senator Bob Graham.

SIEGEL: If one deals too much with the odd encounter many years ago between emissaries from al-Qaeda and somebody in Baghdad, do you risk finding a relationship between al-Qaeda and a government which one could match with other governments? I mean, we could find stronger links between us in the past and Afghan Muslim fighters fighting against the Soviet Union. There seems to be a lot of shadowy contact being made between people who may later be declared terrorists and governments. Is there something unique to these contacts with Iraq that stands out?

Mr. GOLDBERG: I would say at this point, the information the US intelligence community has--it's more than just coincidence or it's more than just a matter of ships passing in the night. These seem to be very deliberate meetings with well-organized agendas whose goal is to develop a serious relationship between these two sides.

SIEGEL: Jeffrey Goldberg, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Jeffrey Goldberg, who writes for The New Yorker magazine, and is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

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