The case laid out by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday included virtually every element of the lengthy U.S. indictment against Iraq, combining an unprecedented release of U.S. intelligence with familiar allegations pointing to what he called Saddam Hussein's "web of lies."
Beginning with charges that Hussein has continued to manufacture and conceal weapons of mass destruction and vehicles to deliver them, Powell moved systematically through new evidence of the Iraqi president's active deception of United Nations inspectors, his purported links to global terrorist organizations and an "association" with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and his repression of the Iraqi people.
Among the new revelations delivered at the United Nations, Powell played what he said were intercepted communications between Iraqi officials who spoke of concealing "forbidden ammo" and made references to "nerve agents." He showed satellite photographs of buildings, said to be chemical and biological weapons bunkers, with "decontamination trucks" parked outside, and subsequent photos where the vehicles had been removed, indicating that the site had been "cleaned up" before inspectors could arrive.
Another set of aerial photographs, said to have been taken two days before inspections began in November, showed a convoy of trucks and a crane he said indicated pre-inspection "housecleaning." Drawings he said were made from information provided by defectors who had worked in top weapons positions depicted mobile biological and chemical laboratories, mounted on both trucks and rail, designed to evade inspectors.
Powell's presentation relied heavily on sensitive U.S. intelligence -- satellite imagery, communications intercepts and defector interviews -- that officials usually guard zealously but agreed to release to make as compelling a case as possible to skeptical domestic and foreign audiences. [Details, Page A23.]
In the most dramatic part of the presentation, Powell outlined what he described to be a previously undisclosed network of terrorists, operating out of Iraq and responsible for planning a series of attacks in more than half a dozen European countries over the past three years, that he said has ties to al Qaeda. The administration has spent much of the past year trying, with little success, to establish a convincing link between Hussein and bin Laden, believing it was the key element in garnering support for early military action against Iraq.
The lines Powell drew connecting the various components of what he called an "Iraq-linked Terrorist Network" went far beyond conclusions European officials investigating the alleged plots have drawn. European diplomats said several assertions were new to them, including the charge that nearly two dozen "extremists" associated with Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born "associate and collaborator with Osama bin Laden," had established an ongoing "base of operations" in the Iraqi capital.
Powell said that Zarqawi had overseen a "poison and explosive training center camp" in Afghanistan, an operation he moved to northeastern Iraq after the U.S. military operation ousted the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Last summer, Zarqawi spent two months in Baghdad for medical treatment. It was then, Powell said, that "nearly two dozen extremists converged on Baghdad and established a base of operations there." Although Zarqawi is no longer in Baghdad, Powell said U.S. intelligence showed he remained in regular contact with "his direct subordinates, including the poison cell plotters."
A number of European officials and U.S. terrorism experts, however, said that Powell's description of the Iraq-Zarqawi-al Qaeda nexus appeared to have been carefully drawn to imply more than it actually said. "You're left to just hear the nouns, and put them together," said Judith S. Yaphe, a senior fellow at the National Defense University who worked for 20 years as a CIA analyst. "It doesn't take me yet to the point where I can say I've seen evidence which convinces me that Saddam Hussein supports al Qaeda."
A senior administration official with knowledge of the intelligence information said that evidence had not yet established that Baghdad had any operational control over Zarqawi's network, or over any transfer of funds or materiel to it. Although Powell said that Baghdad maintained an "agent" in Zarqawi's camp in northeastern Iraq, an area believed to be outside Hussein's control, the senior official said it was unclear what role the agent played. "He may be keeping an eye on them, or serving as some kind of liaison," he said. "We don't know."
Powell's 11/2 -hour presentation provoked little reaction from his Security Council colleagues, most of whom proceeded to deliver their own shorter speeches, saying that new evidence of Iraqi deception only reinforced the need for ongoing, perhaps expanded, inspections. But the administration, and its British allies, believe that Powell added substantially to the increasing evidence of Iraqi non-cooperation with weapons inspectors.
Assuming the next report to the council by chief inspector Hans Blix, due Feb. 14, shows no positive Iraqi movement, one foreign official said, "it's going to be damn hard for anybody" to argue that the inspections should not be ended and Iraq disarmed by force.
In a presentation targeting multiple audiences, Powell's description of the terrorist nexus was clearly directed toward U.S. and European public opinion that has been skeptical about the ties and the urgency of the threat Iraq poses. One senior administration official said: "We would hope that in Paris this afternoon, French people who are paying attention to this are saying to their government: 'There is a problem here. This isn't about America. This is about the security of our people, and also about the strength of the United Nations.' "
Recognizing that there is not yet a majority among Security Council members in favor of ending the inspections, Powell drew a portrait of active deception and concealment that he said was directed by Hussein. He said that Baghdad had reconstituted a top-level committee, headed by Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, and including Hussein's son Qusay, commander of the elite Republican Guard, to monitor the inspection teams and map out programs to foil their efforts.
For example, he said, orders were issued to all security and scientific organizations to "hide all correspondence with the Organization of Military Industrialization . . . the organization that oversees Iraq's weapons of mass destruction activities." Discovery of a similar organization led to the end of previous U.N. inspections in 1998.