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Is Iraq a Front in the War on Terror?

Evaluating the evidence of WMDs, Al Qaeda, and jihadists in Iraq


It’s a yes-or-no question. But there are no yes-or-no answers. And there’s no one authority with the power or right to decide for certain. What is true is that some – like our government –have more power than others – like a foreign government, or individuals—to implement their view. But it’s really worth evaluating the evidence for ourselves about how to categorize the war in Iraq, because it informs:

  • Whether we believe the commitment of American troops in Iraq is justified;
  • Whether we want the country’s financial resources committed to the war in Iraq;
  • What kinds of principles we think American foreign policy should be based on—that is, what is the United States defending when the decision to wage war is made?
  • Who we decide, come election time, best represents our own position on these matters?

Evaluating the Evidence: Did Iraq have WMDs?

Deciding whether Iraq is or should be considered part of the war on terrorism seems to depend on how we decide to evaluate the facts. Did Iraq have WMD? A poll released in July 2006, showed that exactly 50% of those polled believe there were WMD in Iraq before the war, more than believed it last year. This is over a year after the Iraq Survey Group concluded that there were no significant stores of WMD in Iraq, and the U.S. stopped searching for weapons.

Did Iraq Have Ties to Al Qaeda?

Or, did Iraq have substantial ties to Al Qaeda? There are theories and claims of evidence to support a range of viewpoints: among them, a controversial one that 9/11 headman Muhammad Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer had a meaningful rendezvous just months before the attack; that Iraq helped Al Qaeda develop chemical weapons; or, alternatively, that contact between the Hussein regime and Al Qaeda was was never meaningful, as the September 11 Commission concluded last year.

Insurgency or Terrorism?

Or, when violence against Iraqi civilians and Coalition forces flared within months of the Hussein regimes toppling, were those committing the violence terrorists? It's also worth asking what a terrorist is in this context, since crimes such as suicide bombings and hijackings are clearly meant to terrorize by creating fear and spectacle, as well as to victimize and kill.

The distinction intended, in this case, is whether those fighting are foreign or native to Iraq. Foreigners include those such as Al Qaeda members with a jihadist, or religio-political, mission, and foreign fighters motivated to join jihadist missions for reasons ranging from poverty to anti-Americanism. Natives, as it was meant in the immediate aftermath of the war, included Sunni insurgents who were members or adherents to the Hussein regime. Their goal is to re-establish their own power. A third group of nationalist, not religious, fighters was also asserted, and although they may use terrorist tactics, they aren't considered terrorists in this context.

Claims in this case are also all over the map. There is anecdotal evidence from returning marines and others that some of those they captured or killed were definitely foreigners from neighboring countries, such as Saudia Arabia and Syria, as well as Jordan and other Gulf countries. Some argued that foreigners comprised only four to ten percent of the insurgents, and neither military members nor analysts could conclusively agree on the degree of importance they should be afforded.

Perceptions of a Link between Iraq and the War on Terror Shape Reality

Facts will continue to unfold, different parties will continue to contest them, and we'll continue to sift and weigh them.

But perception also matters a great deal in the case of the Iraq war, and attempting to figure out and address the question of whether Iraq is a front in the war on terrorism has ended up connecting them. Whether Iraq was, or should have been, or is now understood narrowly as a military front in the war on terrorism, it has become part of the broader considerations concerning terrorism in the future, both in and beyond Iraq.

This doesn't necessarily make Iraq a "front," but it does mean that its stability, how its government acts and is perceived, and how the United States plays its role and is perceived are factors in the war on terrorism, and vice-versa.

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