Three weeks ago, Secretary of State Colin Powell said links between Baghdad and the group Ansar al-Islam were evidence that Saddam Hussein supported terrorism.
But it wasn't until last week that the U.S. government froze the assets of the group. And the State Department still doesn't list Ansar as a formally designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.
The delay in freezing Ansar's assets, and the lack of a formal terrorist designation, could bolster the case of those who are skeptical of the U.S. claim that Iraq is linked to terrorism.
Ansar al-Islam controls the area of northern Iraq where, according to Powell, alleged al Qaeda operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has established a terrorist training center.
In his testimony to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5, Powell contended the center trained terrorists to use poison. He said the compound lay in "northern Kurdish areas outside Saddam Hussein's controlled Iraq."
"But Baghdad has an agent in the most senior levels of the radical organization Ansar al-Islam that controls this corner of Iraq," Powell said. "In 2000, this agent offered al Qaeda safe haven in the region."
Ansar was not the only element of the U.S. claim that Saddam supports terrorism. The bulk of Powell's case concerned al-Zarqawi, who allegedly received treatment in a Baghdad hospital last year and established an al Qaeda cell there. Powell also said Iraqi agents had provided training to al Qaeda.
But many of those opposed to possible military action against Iraq have said the evidence of connections between Baghdad and al Qaeda was not convincing. That impression could be strengthened by the late addition of Ansar to the list of entities whose assets must be blocked, and by the fact that it is not on the formal list of terrorist entities.
Even the State Department's normally unflappable spokesman, Richard Boucher, seemed confused when announcing the blocking of Ansar's assets at his regular briefing on Thursday.
"We've put them on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list already, right?" he asked reporters.
That is not the case.
Asked Monday about the delay in freezing the assets, a State Department staff member, who refused to be identified, said Ansar "was designated when we had the information necessary to designate it."
The staff member said the process of listing organizations had its own timetable.
The State Department order issued last Thursday blocked U.S. institutions from conducting any transactions involving Ansar's funds, and asked the Security Council to issue similar orders for foreign institutions.
"This action imposes strong penalties on those who provide financial support to terrorist organizations, blocking the assets of designated organizations such as Ansar al-Islam and individuals linked to global terrorism," Boucher said in a statement released after his briefing.
He added: "The Department has not designated this group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization."
Boucher said the reason the U.S. was freezing Ansar's assets but not adding it to the list of terrorist organizations was that the standard of evidence is different for each action.
A group listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization must "engage in terrorist activity" and "threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security (national defense, foreign relations, or the economic interests) of the United States," according to the State Department.
But to freeze a group's assets, the organization must merely "pose a significant risk of committing" terrorist acts, or fund or support groups that do, according to the executive order governing asset freezing.
Because of the stiff evidence test, the list of designated terrorist organizations is an exclusive one: it only contains 36 groups, compared to the thousands of people and organizations whose assets are frozen.
The State Department briefly discussed Ansar al-Islam in a December 2002 report on Iraq, estimating that the group had about 8,000 people — including about 600 fighters — in its Iraqi enclave.
The report referred to the claim that the group was linked to the Iraqi government, but noted that "Baghdad does not control Northern Iraq and some U.S. officials, speaking on background, have said they cannot verify this report."
The December report claims the leader of the group, Mullah Krekar, trained under the same Islamic scholar who tutored Osama bin Laden.
Krekar resides in Norway, but Norway has said it will deport him. The country's immigration service warned Krekar in September that he might be thrown out.
As of Feb. 20, Krekar was still not on the U.S. list of persons whose assets must be blocked. The State Department would not say whether his listing was pending.
Baghdad denies any link to terrorism.
By Jarrett Murphy