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US Officials: Ousting Saddam Hussein is an Integral Part of Counter-Terrorism Strategy - 2003-07-18

The Bush administration considers the ouster of Saddam Hussein an integral part of the U.S. counter-terrorism campaign. Some security experts worry that a prolonged U.S. presence in Iraq could fuel more terrorism, not less.

President Bush listed Saddam Hussein's links to the global terrorist network and his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction as a key justification for waging war in Iraq. Saddam Hussein had already invaded two neighbors, Iran and Kuwait, and provided support for radicals opposed to the Middle East peace process.

"One of the most dangerous threats America faces is a terrorist network teaming up with some of the world's worst leaders, who develop the world's worst weapons," Mr. Bush said.

U.S. officials insist that ousting Saddam Hussein was an integral part of the counter-terrorism strategy. Critics of the war in Iraq argued that it could distract the United States from its global counter-terrorism campaign and its mission to stabilize Afghanistan and eliminate it as a breeding ground for radicals.

In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, some terrorism experts, such as Daniel Benjamin, warn that Muslim radicals, like al-Qaida, will magnify any American missteps in Iraq, in order to spread their own anti-U.S. message and recruit supporters. Mr. Benjamin helped coordinate counter-terrorism policy in the Clinton administration and is now a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"We have played into the hands of our enemies in one significant regard," Mr. Benjamin said. "We have given al-Qaida the best illustration of its argument, even though we believe we did this out of strategic and also positive, sympathetic, charitable reasons that we were going to liberate the Iraqis. Al-Qaida will have a very easy time portraying this and has portrayed this as a definitive proof that the United States is waging a war on Islam. And that is a powerful tool for them to recruit with and fund raise with, and there is strong evidence that they have been doing so."

Supporters of the Bush administration's strategy say helping Iraqis establish a pluralistic society that protects civil and religious rights will prove the radical groups wrong, and serve as a model for the region.

Security expert Jack Spencer, a senior analyst for national security policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, cautions against losing sight of the threat of Saddam Hussein.

"The important thing to remember is that Saddam Hussein used international terrorism throughout his reign to achieve his foreign policy objectives," he said. "And, there is no doubt that terrorism is becoming globalized, that Saddam Hussein viewed the United States as a primary obstacle to him achieving his goals and that he was supporting, at some level, terrorists, who also viewed the United States as an enemy. So, absolutely, Saddam Hussein , getting rid of that regime, was very important to achieving overall victory in the war on terrorism, and that's aside from the whole weapons of mass destruction question, which is just as critical as the terrorist question."

Other analysts agree the war in Iraq sends a clear message that the U.S. administration is serious about fighting terrorism.

"There's no question in the region that the United States is willing to act, can act. And that gets you a lot," said Daniel Byman, who teaches security studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. "Already you've seen sustained pressure on Iran and Syria yield results. I think holding them responsible, not only for attacks on the United States, but for broader U.S. goals of shutting down terrorism camps, cutting financing, cutting logistic support is a very good idea."

To do that, Mr. Byman says, the United States relies on cooperation and intelligence sharing with like-minded governments. But he says a faltering mission in Afghanistan and Washington's decision to confront Saddam Hussein without United Nations support has weakened efforts to share the burden in Iraq. Many allies have resisted U.S. calls for more troops to help maintain law and order in Iraq.

In the wake of the war in Iraq, the Bush administration's new focus on the Middle East peace process has been welcomed by allies in Europe and the Middle East, who see resolution of the conflict as key to curbing the spread of anti-American extremism. But, analysts and diplomats also worry that a long, difficult transition in Iraq could drain off the political energy needed to keep the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks focused and on track.