War on Iraq might distract war on terror

Public evidence of a connection between Hussein and terrorist networks is sketchy at best

A recent spate of terrorist attacks abroad has further unnerved a world already on edge. In Bali last week, terrorists detonated a bomb at a nightclub, killing at least 187 people. In Kuwait, gunmen in a pickup truck fired on a Marine unit, leaving one Marine dead and another wounded. Off the coast of Yemen, terrorists set a French oil tanker ablaze. Meanwhile, the national attention is focused on the prospect of war in Iraq. On Wednesday, President George W. Bush signed a resolution calling for unilateral action to enforce U.N. resolutions. As the United States girds for a possible war on Iraq, the recent wave of attacks adds urgency to the question: What would a war on Iraq mean for the war on terrorism?

In Bush’s view, removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is integral to combating terror. He argues that a perilous link exists between Iraq and groups such as al-Qaida. “Iraq’s combination of weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorist groups and ballistic missiles would threaten the peace and security of many nations,” Bush said after signing the resolution. If Iraq obtains weapons of mass destruction, he said, they could easily be funneled to terror networks aspiring to attack U.S. interests.

Public evidence of such a connection between Hussein and terrorist networks is sketchy at best. Some officials cite the Czech report of a pre-Sept. 11 meeting between an al-Qaida leader and an Iraqi government official. Others mention Hussein’s rewards for Palestinian suicide bombers. Still, the Bush administration has declined to disclose concrete evidence of a link. Asked about the strength of evidence not made public, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said it would probably not hold up in a court of law.

Without a smoking gun to tie Hussein to the kind of terrorism visited on the United States last year, the Bush administration must be attentive to the potential consequences of war against him. Chief among those consequences is the potential backlash such a war could create. The war against terrorism is as much a fight against an ideology as it is against groups such as al-Qaida. What makes the ideology appealing for many Islamic youths is a perception that an imperialist United States aspires to dominate the Middle East. A war against Iraq could fuel that sentiment, particularly if mistakes result in large losses of innocent life.

The Bush administration also must consider such a war’s implications in intelligence-gathering, a key weapon against terrorism. The United States depends greatly on nations in the Middle East and around the world for information on suspected terrorists. Those nations might find it more difficult to do so if anti-American sentiment, flamed by war in Iraq, reaches a critical point. U.S. sources could dry up. Information that could prevent another attack might become harder to come by. A major terrorist attack could become more feasible.

The Sept. 11 attacks shook our nation. In response, we vowed to root out terrorism, wherever it might exist across the globe. We ran al-Qaida out of Afghanistan. We froze financial assets of terrorism and launched a worldwide dragnet. So far, we’ve prevented another attack at home. But as the recent attacks abroad suggest, the war is far from over. As the Bush administration, newly freed from congressional restraint, considers war against Iraq, leaders must take care not to jeopardize that vital mission.