America ‘chasing phantoms’ in Iraq says arms expert

Scott Ritter, America’s former top arms inspector in Iraq, has a neat phrase for Saddam’s regime. The “phantom threat”, he calls it. And he backs up his argument with an impressive assault on the credentials of Ahmed Chalabi, the head of Iraq’s opposition in exile, whose bogus claims of defectors “proving” Iraq’s connection to the 11 September mass murders are persuading Washington to put Saddam on America’s next hit list.

Scott Ritter’s damning evidence late last month should be taken seriously in the White House, even if Mr Ritter did once admit that he shared intelligence on the UN’s Iraqi arms inspections with the Israelis. It was Mr Chalabi, he claimed, who promoted the Iraqi-Bin Laden connection by publicising the alleged meeting in Prague between an Iraqi intelligence agent and the soon-to-be 11 September suicide pilot Mohamed Atta. Mr Ritter says that the subject of their discussion – supposedly an attack on the anti-Saddam Radio Free Europe transmitter in Prague – was a far cry from the 11 September attacks and that the Czech government’s reports on this supposed meeting were conflicting.

Far more seriously, Mr Ritter says that when he was arms inspector, he was tasked to liaise with Mr Chalabi and the “Iraqi National Congress” to gather intelligence information – “more flash than substance” as Mr Ritter puts it – from Mr Chalabi’s defectors. Among the latter was a supposed engineer who helped to build a network of underground tunnels beneath Saddam’s palaces, all packed with documents on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Mr Ritter’s men dutifully went after the treasure trove of files. They found one drainage tunnel and no documents.

When Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz needed a link between Iraq and the 11 September attacks, Mr Ritter says, Mr Chalabi discovered “defectors” who knew of the training of “Arab” hijackers by Iraqi intelligence at a facility near the Iraqi town of Salman Pak, complete with a commercial airliner that was used by would-be air pirates using only knives and – a lovely touch, this, in view of 11 September – practising only in “groups of five”. The Salman Pak facility exists, Mr Ritter says, but its use as an al-Qa’ida training camp has never been substantiated.

The UN, Mr Ritter reveals, “stopped using Chalabi’s information as a basis for conducting inspections once the tenuous nature of his sources and his dubious motivations became clear”. Mr Chalabi’s “sponsors”, according to Mr Ritter in the Christian Science Monitor, are Mr Wolfowitz, former CIA director James Woolsey, and former Under Secretary of State Richard Perle, who rejoices in the nickname of “Prince of Darkness”.

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