by Ritt Goldstein
(IPS) -- The Bush administration is stepping up its efforts to link al-Qaeda with the upswing in attacks by Iraqi armed resistance.
Key in this effort has been the portrayal of the ultra-orthodox Kurdish group Ansar al Islam and its alleged leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The Bush administration and some of its allies accuse Ansar, long at odds with the secular, western-oriented Kurdish groups allied with the coalition, of close links with al-Qaeda. Zarqawi is seen as the man behind most terror plots that are publicized. But 'facts' keep changing.
According to U.S. Administration pronouncements, Zarqawi was first a "close associate of bin Laden." His relationship to bin Laden became "uncertain" before he was back to being a "close associate."
An official U.S. statement declaring Ansar a terrorist group claimed that Zarqawi was a "senior al Qaeda operative," but later he was only "suspected" of being some kind of affiliate. Until two weeks ago he was considered the leader of Ansar al Islam. Now he is thought to be heading a Jordanian extremist group called al Tawhid, and only linked to al-Qaeda and other groups.
The 'facts' vary with the political imperatives of the moment, experts say. The Bush administration badly needs to deflect attention from Saddam's much-alleged, but never found weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Last winter Zarqawi was supposedly working with explosives and deadly toxins at a terror camp in northeast Iraq. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell warned the United Nations Security Council of the dangers he allegedly posed in a presentation in February last year.
Powell claimed Zarqawi and Ansar al Islam were Saddam Hussein's link to al-Qaeda. The "evidence" behind Powell's assertions proved as empty as that on WMDs, observers say.
Powell provided a satellite picture of the alleged terror camp. A number of journalists went immediately to the place but found only a radio station and living areas.
Powell said Ansar had cyanide gas, VX nerve gas and the toxin ricin. The U.S. claimed at first to have found "evidence of chemical weapons production" after it attacked Ansar camps along with Kurdish forces in March 2003 last year. The claim later proved unfounded.
In October last year former Powell aide Greg Thielmann said that Powell had misinformed Americans during his testimony.
The United States doubled the bounty on Zarqawi last week to ten million dollars, calling him the mastermind behind a blueprint for terror in Iraq. The U.S. decision came after coalition forces claimed to have found a letter Zarqawi is said to have written to bin Laden. "We believe the report and document are credible," said Gen. Mark Kimmitt of the U.S. forces.
Zarqawi tells bin Laden in the alleged letter that al-Qaeda would be welcome in Iraq. But several questions have been raised about the letter. Foremost, if al-Qaeda was already present in Iraq as alleged so often before, why would Zarqawi need to invite it? The Washington Post notes that there has been no independent verification of the document's authenticity.
U.S. forces blamed al-Qaeda and Ansar for the suicide bombings that killed more than 100 people including several Kurdish leaders in the northern Iraqi town Arbil on Feb. 1. Two days later Jaish Ansar al Sunna, a resistance group based in the Sunni triangle that had warned people aiding the occupation, claimed responsibility for the Arbil blasts.
Coalition forces then said Jaish was related to al-Qaeda and Ansar, another attempt to blur distinctions among groups resisting U.S. occupation of Iraq.
In blaming al-Qaeda and Ansar, the United States and its allies have sought effectively to legitimize the presentation Powell made to the Security Council a year ago. If public perceptions of the Ansar threat were to grow, the invasion of Iraq would be seen as more legitimate, experts say.
U.S. officials have again pointed to al-Qaeda and foreign terrorists as the leading suspects behind recent attacks. On Tuesday last week a bomber killed 53 people at a police recruitment centre in Iskandariyah south of Baghdad. The next day another bomber claimed 47 lives at an army recruitment centre in Baghdad. On Saturday a rebel assault routed security forces in Fallujah, killing at least twenty.
But it is widely acknowledged that there are few foreigners among the thousands arrested by coalition forces.
The Iraqi police have corrected their initial statement that "foreigners" were behind the assault in Fallujah Saturday. The Associated Press noted that "U.S. and Iraqi officials have made conflicting reports on who carried out the attack." U.S. officials insist the attack was carried out by non-Iraqis.
Foreigners had been blamed in the car bombing that killed Shia leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim and many of his followers in August last year. Nothing ever came of that allegation.
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