LONDON, Sept. 15 (UPI) -- A pending British government report detailing the threat Iraq poses to the world identifies two leading al Qaida operatives as having direct links to Saddam Hussein, a major British newspaper said Sunday.
A draft version of the dossier, due to be presented to Parliament by Prime Minister Tony Blair on Sept 24, allegedly claims that Abu Zubair, believed to be in custody in the United States, and Rafid Fatah, still at large, were trained in Iraq and sent to work with al Qaida in Afghanistan.
The dossier also reportedly discloses satellite evidence that Saddam has reconstructed three plants to manufacture biological and chemical weapons together with 'worrying activity" at them, according to the Sunday Telegraph report.
Whether the evidence is strong enough to convince a sizeable body of skeptical British skeptics, however, remains to be seen. Blair has scheduled a one-day recall of Parliament on Sept 24 to debate the issue, but has declined to allow a vote one way or another.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, citing U.S. and British intelligence officials, Abu Zubair, also known as Fowzi Saad al-Obeidi, was an Iraqi intelligence officer trained by Saddam's regime in terrorism techniques against the Kurds in Northern Iraq.
A fundamentalist Islamist who ran the Supporters of Islam organization in Iraq, Zubair was supposed to have defected from Saddam's regime in order to join al Qaida. But the British dossier reportedly says Saddam covertly sent him to Afghanistan to keep an eye on Osama bin Laden, whom he distrusted.
But Zubair, a big man nicknamed "The Bear," went on to run training camps in Afghanistan before Sept. 11 last year, and planned an abortive attempt to blow up Nato ships in the Mediterranean last March. Although he was reported to have been arrested in Morocco in May, the Telegraph said Zubair's family continues to enjoy privileges in Baghdad.
The second man, Rafid Fatah, also known as Abu Omer al-Kurdi, is claimed in the dossier to have also been trained by Saddam's intelligence agents and to have worked with Zubair against the Kurds. His whereabouts are unknown, but he is said to have become a leading member of al Qaida.
The disclosures Sunday promoted a prominent former Conservative cabinet minister, Michael Howard, to call for the immediate publication of the dossier in order to put an end to British doubts and get behind U.S. President George W. Bush's efforts to unseat Saddam.
The doubters, however, are less in his party than they are in Blair's Labor Party. Three senior government officials - Robin Cook, former Foreign Secretary and now Leader of the House of Commons; Clare Short, International Development Secretary; and Margaret Beckett, Environment Secretary, have all expressed doubt over Blair's stand. Other senior ministers have tried to avoid answering questions on the subject. Chancellor (finance chief) Gordon Brown and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, a noted left winger, came out publicly in support of Blair on the issue only on Friday.
Blair is set to challenge the doubters in his Cabinet at a special meeting Sept 23, on the eve of the Parliamentary debate, when the full dossier is expected to be presented to them.
An indication that Blair's policy of getting U.N. sanction for any military action against Iraq is the right one, as far as the public is concerned, came Sunday in an opinion poll published by the Sunday Times. Compared to 10 days ago, when 71 percent of the public said they opposed a unilateral American or British attack on Iraq, the new YouGov poll showed 95 percent backing for a deadline for U.N. inspectors to be given full access to Iraqi weapons sites, and 80 percent for U.N.-backed military action if Saddam refuses. Under these circumstances, 75 percent said Britain should contribute troops.
The size of Britain's contribution to a U.S.-led attack is now expected to be considerably less than the 30,000-plus troops the British press speculated about last week. According to British and American defense sources, the Pentagon requires only an 'Afghanistan-plus' contribution of special forces troops, strike aircraft, rapidly-deployed engineers, air refuelling tankers and AWACS airborne control aircraft, and naval support in the form of minesweepers and frigates.
Royal Air Force tankers have been essential to the Afghanistan air operation, particularly for U.S. naval aircraft. This time the RAF's combat aircraft are also likely to be called upon. Jaguar reconnaissance planes and Tornado GR4 strike aircraft are already routinely involved in British-American patrols of the north and south no-fly zones over Iraq. Their capabilities have also improved. The Tornados now use enhanced Paveway all-weather precision-guided bombs, and by December will have the new 300-mile range Storm Shadow cruise missile.
Older Tornado F3 fighters may also be called in for combat air patrols now that they have been equipped with ASRAAM air-to-air missiles and Link 16, real-time data communications.
But on land forces, although the British Ministry of Defense is offering elements from the 4th and 7th armored divisions - the 'Desert Rats' of World War II fame that were last used in action in the Gulf War -- to form a total of 12,000 troops, American sources say the U.S. Army is looking more for light forces from Britain, such as its Parachute Regiment and Royal Marines. The latter has a special relationship with the Kurds in helping their exodus from Northern Iraq in 1991 and has only just returned from joint operations with the U.S. in Afghanistan. The paratroopers have been training heavily for urban warfare operations.
The U.S. Army appears to have no requirement for Britain's Challenger II tanks, which did not perform well in Operation Saif Sareea in Oman a year ago because of failures with their sand filters.