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Ex-British spy chief faults Iraq invasion

Says war has taken focus off Al Qaeda

By David Stringer
Associated Press / July 21, 2010

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LONDON — The war in Iraq led to a loss of focus on the threat from Al Qaeda, emboldened the group’s leader, Osama bin Laden, and helped to breed a generation of homegrown terrorists, Britain’s former domestic spy chief said yesterday.

Making the sharpest criticism so far aired in Britain’s inquiry into mistakes made in the Iraq war, Eliza Manningham-Buller, director of the MI5 agency between 2002 and 2007, said Britain’s government paid little attention to warnings the war would fuel domestic terrorism.

Manningham-Buller also said Iraq had posed little threat before the 2003 US-led invasion and insisted there was no evidence of a link between former dictator Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

“There was no credible intelligence to suggest that connection, and that was the judgment, I might say, of the CIA,’’ she said. “It was not a judgment that found favor with some parts of the American machine.’’

She said those in the United States pushing the case for war gave undue prominence to scraps of inconclusive intelligence on possible links between Iraq and the 2001 attacks. She singled out then-US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

“It is why Donald Rumsfeld started an alternative intelligence unit in the Pentagon to seek an alternative judgment,’’ said Manningham-Buller.

“Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, and I have never seen anything to make me change my mind,’’ she said.

Manningham-Buller also indicated that MI5 disagreed with then-Prime Minister Tony Blair over a key justification for the war: Iraq’s purported harboring of weapons of mass destruction.

She said the belief that Iraq might use such weapons against the West “wasn’t a concern in either the short term or the medium term to either my colleagues or myself.’’

Manningham-Buller, now a member of the House of Lords, was testifying before a panel that aims to examine the buildup to the Iraq war and errors made in postconflict planning.

It won’t apportion blame or criminal liability, but will issue a report later this year with recommendations.

“By focusing on Iraq, we reduced the focus on the Al Qaeda threat in Afghanistan,’’ Manningham-Buller said. “I think that was a long-term, major, and strategic problem.’’

She said the Iraq war vastly increased the terrorism threat to Britain — with her officers battling to handle a torrent of plots launched by homegrown radicals.

“Our involvement in Iraq radicalized, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people — not a whole generation, a few among a generation — who saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam,’’ she said.

She disclosed that 70 to 80 British citizens had traveled to Iraq to join the insurgency. Video messages left by the four suicide bombers who killed 52 commuters in the 2005 attacks on London’s subway and bus network had referred to Britain’s role in Iraq.

The decision to invade Iraq probably provided an impetus to Al Qaeda, she said. “Arguably we gave Osama bin Laden his Iraqi jihad, so that he was able to move into Iraq in a way that he was not before.’’

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