Financial Times Taliban promised to reveal Iraq link By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent, in Washington March 6 2003
Senior officials from Afghanistan's Taliban regime undertook to provide the US with detailed information showing links between Iraq and terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, but abandoned the offer when the bombing of Afghanistan started in October 2001. Taliban officials who opposed the Islamist fundamentalist regime's readiness to protect al-Qaeda after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington told an unofficial US delegation led by a New York financier that they were prepared to discuss what they knew of Iraq's relations with al-Qaeda. During discussions before a planned meeting with the American group, they said they had hosted at least one meeting between Iraqi and al-Qaeda officials at the Afghanistan embassy in Pakistan as long ago as 1997. The Bush administration has sought to prove a link between the Iraqi regime of President Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda as part of its justification for invading Iraq but has been criticised for providing only circumstantial evidence. However, to date US officials have not firmly cited evidence from Taliban sources. The Taliban officials, several of whom are now in US custody, told the US delegation they were prepared to discuss what they knew of these ties. But a meeting scheduled to be held in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar about October 8 2001 was cancelled after the bombing started. The unofficial US delegation was led by Mansour Ijaz, an American hedge fund manager of Pakistani origin. James Woolsey, the former CIA director, agreed to go as an observer, on condition that the Taliban released eight Americans being held on charges of spreading Christianity. Two others - a senior American journalist and an influential member of Pakistan's Islamist movement - were also to be part of the delegation. The Taliban apparently hoped that the impending bombing campaign against Afghanistan could be averted. The readiness to meet the delegation was the result of growing suspicion within the Taliban of Osama bin Laden's motives and the realisation that al-Qaeda's leader was prepared to sacrifice the regime in pursuit of al-Qaeda's aims. In a letter to Mr Ijaz and Mr Woolsey dated October 7 2001, seen by the FT, Alhaj Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, agreed to the terms of a meeting discussed earlier on the telephone and in faxed correspondence. These written terms made it clear that the Taliban would be prepared to "expand on your expressed interest to provide us with information about the nature and extent of relationships between Iraq and terror groups in the region, including potentially to bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation". The terms of the discussions agreed by the Taliban would also give the Americans an insight into whether allegations of Iraqi support for terrorist groups "represents a uniform opinion within the Taliban leadership or a factional view". In his letter of October 7, which was faxed to the delegation while it was in Copenhagen en route to Afghanistan, Mr Zaeef confirmed receipt of the specific terms of the discussion and said the regime was ready to "discuss issues of mutual interest related to the horrendous events of September 11." The visit would include a lengthy meeting with the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Mr Ijaz, who acted during President Bill Clinton's administration to try to repair US relations with Sudan in 1996-97, believes that the Taliban were being exploited by al-Qaeda just as the Sudanese Islamist government had been before it expelled Mr bin Laden in May 1996.