Iraq link to Sept 11 attack and anthrax is ruled out
By Peter Green in Prague
THE case for widening the war on terrorism against Iraq
suffered a major setback yesterday when a vital piece of evidence
allegedly linking Baghdad to the September 11 attacks appeared
Czech police said yesterday they had no
evidence that the ringleader of the suicide attacks, Mohammed Atta, met
an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague earlier this year. Administration
hardliners in Washington had cited the alleged meeting in support of their argument that Saddam Hussein's regime had been backing terrorism.
story emerged as the White House announced that the anthrax attacks
that swept America probably originated from a domestic source. It had
been suggested that the bacillus had originated in an Iraqi biological weapons lab.
Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said: "There is nothing that has
been final, that has been concluded. But the evidence is increasingly
looking like it was a domestic source."
of Atta's possible link to Iraq first surfaced in Czech and US
newspapers and later appeared to be confirmed by the interior minister,
Stanislav Gross. In a briefing to journalists two months ago,
Mr Gross said the Czech counter-intelligence service, the BIS, had
evidence of a meeting in April this year between Atta and an Iraqi spy,
Ahmed al-Ani, who was working as consul at the Prague embassy.
yesterday Jiri Kolar, the police chief, said there were no documents
showing that Atta visited Prague at any time this year, although he had
visited twice in 2000.
Atta could have entered the
country using false papers, but Mr Gross questioned why Atta would do
so when he was not a wanted man. "I don't see any reason for him to
visit under a false name," he said. "He was 'legal' when he was in
The true story of any Prague connection
appears to be much less definite than Mr Gross first suggested. The
Czech president, Vaclav Havel, who has access to papers of the
counter-intelligence service, said earlier this month that it was only
"70 per cent" certain that Atta had met the Iraqi spy in Prague.
had been assumed that the information on the April meeting came from
BIS agents trailing an Iraqi spy, something that is common in Nato
states such as the Czech Republic. But Mr Havel said the report of the
meeting came "from an informer who followed this Iraqi spy", rather
than a BIS staff member.
Other Nato states, including Britain - which is known to be lukewarm
about the idea of attacking Iraq during the next round of the war on
terrorism - have questioned accounts of Baghdad's possible involvement
in the September 11 attacks.
On a visit to Prague
last month, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, said there was no proof
of Iraqi involvement in the attacks. "I must emphasise that we do not
have any proof of Baghdad's participation in the attacks on New York
and Washington," he told a Czech newspaper.
recent days, there have been suggestions in the Czech press that
another Mohammed Atta had visited Prague this year. A man of the same
name did arrive in the Czech capital in 2001, an intelligence source
told a Czech newspaper, but it was not the Egyptian terrorist.
didn't have the same identity card number, there was a great difference
in their ages, their nationalities didn't match, basically nothing. It
was someone else," an unidentified interior ministry official told the
newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes.
A police spokesman,
Major Ivana Zelenakova, said Atta the hijacker had been in Prague, but
a year before the alleged meeting with al-Ani. Atta's two confirmed
visits in 2000 took place a few days apart, in May and June. On both
occasions, Atta's entry was logged by Czech police. "What exactly he
did here during that time, we do not know," she said.
to the FBI, Atta left the US for several days in early April this year
for Europe. Credit card records indicate that he bought a knife at
Zurich airport and show him returning to Florida a few days later.
alleged contact, the Iraqi consul al-Ani, was expelled from Prague soon
after the alleged Atta meeting for "conduct incompatible with his
diplomatic duties". The Czechs suspected that al-Ani was a spy because
he was noticeably absent from all diplomatic functions. "He was paid
for performing some duties, and he had no diplomatic duties, so we
checked, we found and we acted," said a senior Czech official.
long-time member of Prague's Arab community, a businessman who prefers
to be known only as Hassan, said that he was a close friend of the
Iraqi and that he believed the Czechs had mistaken another man for Atta.
said a man he knew only as Saleh, a used car dealer from Nuremburg,
often came to Prague to meet al-Ani and sold him at least one car. "I
have sat with the two of them at least twice. The double is an Iraqi
who has met with the consul. If someone saw a photo of Atta he might
easily mistake the two," Hassan said.