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Yet while Ansar may share Saddam's desire to destroy the Kurdish leadership--in April, Ansar unsuccessfully attempted to kill one faction's prime minister when Assistant Secretary of State Ryan Crocker was visiting the area--the Iraqi dictator does not appear to have direct control over the Kurdish militants. Both Saddam and al-Qaeda may find Ansar's activities useful, but there's no evidence that the group serves as a link between them.
The hawks point to another piece of circumstantial evidence. Since last fall the U.S. has tried to confirm a Czech intelligence report that in April 2001, 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague. Both the CIA and FBI have disputed the report. Their research places Atta in Florida two days before the purported meeting, and they could not uncover any travel or financial records to prove Atta had made a quick flight to Prague. But early this month several Pentagon officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, met with the FBI's assistant director for counterterrorism, Pat D'Amuro, to quiz the FBI again about the Czech report. Officials from both agencies who attended the meeting deny that Wolfowitz pressured the briefers to confirm that the Prague rendezvous took place. But the FBI says the Pentagon team tried, with success, to persuade the bureau to concede that reports of the meeting are at least possible.
Other points of suspicion have come from Iraqi defectors. A former army officer now under the protection of the anti-Saddam Iraqi National Congress has repeated to numerous U.S. officials and reporters his tale of a camp at Salman Pak, just outside Baghdad, run by the Iraqi secret police as a training school for potential terrorists from across the Arab world. Among other things, he said, the camp uses the fuselage of a Boeing 707 to practice hijackings. Early this year Mohamed Mansour Shahab, a mercenary now in Kurdish custody who says he worked for Saddam's secret police, told interviewers that in 2000 the regime set aside $16 million for nine terrorist operations, including a scuttled suicide attack Shahab was supposed to organize against a U.S. Navy ship in the Persian Gulf.
Another defector, from Iraq's intelligence service, told a Vanity Fair reporter that Saddam's son Uday oversees a vicious 1,200-man commando force called al-Qarea, trained to carry out terrorist attacks against American targets. Washington counterterrorism experts are skeptical about whether Iraq really boasts such a cadre. A U.S. official who studies Iraq says al-Qarea is probably a ragtag collection of men Uday dressed up as militants to impress his father.
Other items the hard-liners like to list seem even longer on speculation. They point to a visit bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri supposedly made to Saddam in 1992. But Zawahiri was then the head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and had not yet hooked up with al-Qaeda. Nor has the CIA been able to verify a Saddam-Zawahiri meeting, especially at a time when Baghdad was trying to improve relations with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Zawahiri's prime target.