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IRAQ: ON SALE CHEAP

by Matt Taibbi

I have been steadily winding down my consumption of major news media lately in anticipation of the inevitable blizzard of bullshit surrounding the 9/11 anniversary. All the same, it was hard not to notice the frenetic-- and at times highly comic-- recent attempts by the media to sell Americans on the idea of invading Iraq. I've seen used car salesmen do a better job of selling a lemon than the networks and the major dailies have done with this idiotic war idea in the past few weeks.

About two weeks ago, when stories began to surface in the media indicating that even the Republican congressional leadership (including delusional Uber-hawk Dick Armey) was nervous about invading Iraq, I said to myself: "If this keeps up, they're going to find bin Laden in Iraq any day now."

press.jpgThe administration and the White House pool reporters have been flirting with the Iraq-Al-Qaida connection for nearly a year now, but until recently, they were never able to get past second base with it.

Last year, the government leaked a bizarre story to the press that asserted that craggy-faced hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with Iraqi intelligence officials in Prague in April, 2001. The story lingered in the public eye for some time before it finally came out that Atta was in the United States during the time of the alleged meeting.

Czech officials also apologetically noted that they had surveillance agents more or less sleeping in the same bed as the Iraqi official the entire time, without any of them ever noticing Atta.

Then on March 18, around the time the Bush administration made its first serious public run at convincing the electorate to back an attack on Iraq, CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate that there were ties between Al-Qaida and Iraq. When pressed to explain himself, Tenet said he wasn't prepared to offer evidence, but was willing to insist that such unlikely cooperation between a secular dictatorship and religious fundamentalist terrorists was at least possible. "Their ties may be limited by divergent ideologies," he said, "but the two sides' mutual antipathies toward the United States and the Saudi royal family suggests that tactical co-operation between them is possible." Even the Senate was not particularly impressed by that answer, and so the attack plans were shelved for the moment.

Then finally, about a month ago, as the bomb-Iraq movement in the White House began to pick up steam, Dapper Don Rumsfeld halfheartedly let the Iraq-Al-Qaida connection squirm, silverfish-like, out of his mouth at a press conference. In response to a question about whether or not Al-Qaida had a presence in Iraq, Rumsfeld said, "Al-Qaida in Iraq? Shit, why not? Sure, they're there! Yep!"

Actually, the August 7 quote went like this: "Are there al-Qaida in Iraq? The answer's yes, there are. It's a fact."

Rumsfeld's blurb got a little press, but it was unconvincing enough that even most reporters felt queasy about sticking their names on it, and it went mainly unreported, further harming the war effort.

This must have been a depressing revelation for the Bush administration, finding out that simply announcing a link between Saddam Hussein and bin Laden was not enough to get the national press corps to stand up and salute. After going back to the drawing board, they came up with a more press-friendly interpretation of the Iraq-Al-Qaida story. The important ingredient of the latest version of events was that it was a "new" phenomenon: a "new" terrorist group operating in Iraqi territory is testing biological weapons, in conjunction with Al-Qaida.

This is the kind of story in which it is instructive to look closely at the timetable of the various news reports. The progression of the story indicates a fair amount of desperation to keep Al-Qaida in the news, and anti-war stories out. The big day for the "new" story was August 19, when ABC's World News Tonight, citing unnamed U.S. intelligence sources, said that the U.S. had considered attacking northern Iraq when it was learned that "Arab terrorists with links to Al-Qaida" had used a northern Iraqi laboratory to test biological and chemical weapons.

The language in this first news report contained the following elements: a "possible" link to Al-Qaida, an unnamed U.S. source, and a terrorist group that, as yet, was not being called "new."

By the next day, August 20, still more unnamed sources were giving interviews to journalists, but one official-- Rumsfeld-- went on the record with his inevitable "I told you so" statement.

"I have said for some time that there are al-Qaida in Iraq, and there are," he said. "They have left Afghanistan. They have left other locations. And they've landed in a variety of countries, one of which is Iraq."

It is hard to imagine the initial leak coming out without Rumsfeld's knowledge, which begs the question: Why didn't Rumsfeld make the announcement about the new link himself? Why do it through an anonymous source? The whole thing was very crudely done, but the major media bit on it: they first reported the leak, then ran to Rumsfeld for "confirmation," as though they were two different sources.

By the second day after the initial ABC report, there were numerous officials on the record talking about the Al-Qaida/northern Iraq link, and the link was no longer "possible" but definite (i.e. "Kurdish Extremists Linked to Al-Qaida," AP, Aug. 21).

By the third day, the "terrorist group" in northern Iraq, despite presumably being two days older than it was on Aug. 19, was roundly being called a "New" group for the first time (i.e. "New Islamic extremist group in Iraq has loose links to al-Qaida," AP, Aug. 22). A myriad of details, some of them quite possibly true, came out: the group, called Ansar al-Islam, had been formed in December, 2001 (conveniently after 9/11) and had rapidly acquired the technological sophistication to test weapons of mass destruction. Even the Soviets never moved that fast.

There were so many contradictions in these government announcements that it literally boggles the mind to see how the media failed not only to notice them, but to aggressively broadcast them to the public.

For one thing, the initial Aug. 19 report called the belligerents "Arab terrorists." Within three days, it was fairly clear that Ansar al-Islam was in fact a Kurdish group. U.S. officials sideswiped this problem by recasting the group as predominantly Kurdish, with a few Arabs thrown in here and there. Here is how the AP put it: "It [Ansar al-Islam] is composed primarily of Kurds -- and some Arabs -- who follow an extremist brand of Sunni Islam."

The second problem with this story was that the group was based in parts of Iraq not controlled by Saddam Hussein. In point of fact, the group is anti-Hussein, whose primary objective is Kurdish liberation. Nothing could bring home this point more clearly than the fact that on Aug. 21, mustachioed Hussein lackey Tareq Aziz could be heard loudly announcing that Al-Qaida operatives were in fact hanging around in Kurd-controlled areas of Iraq. Aziz, rather than confirming a reason for an invasion, was in fact angling for sympathy by calling his government a victim of Al-Qaida as well. Under normal circumstances, such an announcement by a government official would have been tantamount to an invitation for the U.S. to bomb his nation's rebel enclave.

Instead, U.S. officials went to bizarre lengths to twist this set of circumstances around in such a way that the presence of anti-Hussein Kurdish rebels-- whom Hussein himself cannot fight because of demilitarized zone restrictions imposed by the U.S.-- could in fact be explained as part of a Hussein plot to harbor Al-Qaida terrorists.

Here is Rumsfeld's explanation on that issue: "In a vicious, repressive dictatorship that exercises near total control over its population, it's very hard to imagine that the government is not aware of what's taking place in the country."

It's fairly obvious by now that the Bush administration has a hard-on for Saddam Hussein, and is going to invade Iraq at the earliest conceivable opportunity. It might have something to do with the upcoming congressional elections, it might have something to do with oil-- who knows? Whatever it is, it clearly doesn't really have anything to do with terrorism. But guarantee it: the next time a teenager shoots off a bottle rocket within 1000 miles of Baghdad, the Pentagon will provide him with a link to Al-Qaida. Hell, they've already done it.

 
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