On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell dropped a bombshell at a Congressional hearing on Iraq and revealed that he had a transcript of an "upcoming" audio message from Osama bin Laden that betrays the links between bin Laden and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
However, the White House may have put its foot in its mouth this time around.
Upon careful scrutiny of the audio message from bin Laden (and broadcast at 3pm EST on the Arabic News Network Al-Jazeerah), it appears the Bush administration may have been so desperate to pin anything on Saddam and bin Laden that they did not wait to actually hear the contents of the message, nor provide adequate and reliable translation.
The bin Laden message expresses solidarity with the Iraqi people, advises them to remain steadfast in the coming invasion of their country and declares that Saddam and his aides are not important. "It is not important if Saddam and his government disappear," the man thought to be bin Laden says. "This is a war against you, the Muslims, and you must take arms to defend yourselves."
U.S. officials were quick to point out that the bin Laden message directly incriminates Iraq and proves the existence of ties between bin Laden's al-Qaeda and Saddam. U.S. media touted the official line before even hearing the tape, or awaiting a reliable translation. "Undeniably links Iraq with al-Qaeda," says one CNN anchor.
And then something happened that neither the U.S. administration nor the media anticipated: bin Laden called Saddam an apostate.
The audio message goes on to reveal that bin Laden believes Saddam to be a socialist and declares that "socialists and communists are unbelievers," thereby labeling Saddam an apostate of Islam, an infidel. It is worth mentioning that the government of Iraq is quasi-socialist and secular, and not Islamic.
Walid Phares, an Arabic-speaking MSNBC analyst finds that the audio message undermines Saddam's regime: "Osama bin Laden does not care about Saddam, in fact he can't wait till the demise of Saddam; he is trying to position himself to offer Iraqis an alternative ideology – he calls socialism abhorrent to Islam."
The voice alleged to be bin Laden's in the audio message also called for the spilling of Saddam's blood: "His blood is halal." This wording is used to indicate what is permissive or legally allowed for the killing of a usurper or criminal.
The audio message also called forth the overthrow of governments supporting the U.S. – Nigeria, Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
If bin Laden is effectively calling on Muslim Iraqis to overthrow Saddam and that Saddam is irrelevant in the coming war and Iraqis should not fight for him, how then can the U.S. administration use this message to prove Saddam and al-Qaeda are linked?
That question left some analysts baffled.
Kenneth Pollack, CNN analyst and anti-terrorism specialist, says that this is not the first time that bin Laden has used the plight of Iraq under sanctions and under Saddam to rally Muslims to his cause. In fact, bin Laden has spoken of the Iraqi issue since 1996, and has not hidden the fact that he is growing distaste for Saddam's socialist, Ba'athist regime.
"The October audio message this year was a four minute tape and bin Laden expressed sympathy for the Iraqi people," says Peter Bergen, CNN consultant on terrorism. "I don't see today's audio message as endorsing Saddam," he concludes.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials maintain that this is all the proof they need. However, the U.S. viewing public must be aware that they were only allowed to view excerpts of the 16-minute audio message, and contrary to what CNN has been proclaiming, it is not all about Iraq. The audio message also includes advice on refraining from alcohol and illicit sex, and respecting one's parents, in addition to other spiritual advice.
The audio message will not go down so easily in Europe and the Middle East and will be seen as a desperate attempt by a U.S. administration that has taken a bashing in NATO and at the U.N. to turn the tables around.
According to the BBC, "BBC's security correspondent, Frank Gardner, said the figure on the tape voiced support for Iraq, but that in no way did it prove a link between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi leadership."
Arabic speakers are sure to pour scorn on the official U.S. line. U.S. Congressional leaders, who have appeared on talk shows immediately following the excerpted broadcast of the audio tape have alluded to incorrect translations of the original Arabic content.
By default, the U.S. public is offered a half-censored, half-baked version of the audio tape.
U.S. officials have conceded that the voice on the tape is indeed that
of bin Laden, no one has bothered to focus on why the man U.S.
President Bush vowed to get "dead or alive" is very much alive and a
clear and present danger.
Firas Al-Atraqchi, B.Sc (Physics), M.A. (Journalism and
Communications), is a Canadian journalist with eleven years of
experience covering Middle East issues, oil and gas markets, and the telecom industry.