Seeing The Evil In Front Of Us

The moment of confrontation had come. President Bush warned Saddam Hussein that if he continued to interfere with United Nations weapons inspectors and to shoot at American warplanes over Iraq, he would have to pay the consequences. So Islamic radicals from all over the Middle East, Africa and Asia converged on Baghdad to show their solidarity with Iraq in the face of American aggression. Chechens in Persian-lamb hats, Moroccans in caftans, delegates who hailed "from Jakarta to Dakar," as one Senegalese put it, poured into Baghdad's Rashid Hotel, where Saddam's minions urged them to embrace jihad as "the one gate to Paradise." And the greatest holy warrior of all? "The mujahed Saddam Hussein, who is leading this nation against the nonbelievers," they were told. "Everyone has a task to do, which is to go against the American state," declared Saddam's deputy Ezzat Ibrahim. The Americans had colonized Lebanon; they had colonized Saudi Arabia. But the line against them would be drawn in Iraq. Believers would triumph, said Ibrahim: "Our stand now can lead us to final victory, to Paradise."

That was in January 1993. I was there, and every time I hear diplomats and politicians, whether in Washington or the capitals of Europe, declare that Saddam Hussein is a "secular Baathist ideologue" who has nothing to do with Islamists or with terrorist calls to jihad, I think of that afternoon and I wonder what they're talking about. If that was not a fledgling Qaeda itself at the Rashid convention, it sure was Saddam's version of it.

I also think of that same night, when the cruise missiles launched by Bush as one of his last official acts in the White House soared through the brilliantly lit skies of Baghdad. They followed computerized maps and took their bearings off landmarks, among them the enormous Rashid Hotel. Antiaircraft guns caught some of them in their sights, and one missile, apparently hit by Iraqi flak, smashed into the Rashid's lobby. The jihadists were sure the Americans meant to kill them. Saddam couldn't have planned a better propaganda coup to win the sympathy of holy warriors around the world.

I thought of that day and those speeches, too, six weeks later when I heard that a truck bomb had been detonated on the second level of the World Trade Center parking basement, with the aim of bringing one tower crashing down on the other. (Because it failed, six people were killed and hundreds injured. If it had succeeded, the casualty toll might have been higher than that of September 11.) What struck me first about the bombing in 1993 was the date: Feb. 26, exactly two years to the day after Desert Storm forced Saddam to make the humiliating announcement on Baghdad radio that he was withdrawing from Kuwait, even though his soldiers had "performed their jihad duty."

Was Saddam behind the first World Trade Center attack? There's no smoking gun. But one mastermind entered the United States on an Iraqi passport that identified him as Ramzi Yousef. Another, Abdul Rahman Yasin, was an Iraqi born in Indiana who carried an American passport. Yousef was arrested in early 1995 in Quetta, Pakistan. But Yasin went home to Baghdad. He's still there, one of the FBI's 22 most-wanted terrorists. Saddam even offered to turn him over to the Americans earlier this year. The Bush administration demurred, fearing a propaganda ploy: SADDAM SUPPORTS WAR ON TERROR.

Dour as he is, the Butcher of Baghdad must grin at Washington's inclination to stymie itself. How amusing to see the first President Bush pull back from the coup de grace at the end of Desert Storm; how diverting to watch all the failed coups and conspiracies since. Maybe Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan Al-Majid best reflected the clan's views after he used poison gas on Iraq's own Kurdish population in 1988. "Who is going to say anything?" he asked. "The international community? F-- them! The international community and those who listen to them."

What makes Saddam's clique so confident? They know real evil is hard to imagine. Reasonable people do not want to recognize it, even when it stares them in the face; easier to listen to those who tell us that Saddam couldn't possibly see eye to eye with Islamic fundamentalists and couldn't possibly be so foolish as to entrust them with weapons of mass destruction.

A preventive war against Saddam Hussein is for many reasons a dangerous and potentially disastrous policy, especially if the United States tries to go it alone. But let's not fool ourselves about the man or his regime. They are evil, they are dangerous, and will remain so as long as they are in power.