WASHINGTON — Americans all should be dead. At least, Americans all should be dead if the Bush administration is correct about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. It believes there is nothing today that prevents a weak and isolated Iraq from striking the United States, the globe’s dominant power.

Before the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell proved what we all already knew: Hussein has worked to develop weapons of mass destruction. But would Baghdad really use such weapons when doing so would risk its own survival?

Powell suggested that the pragmatic secular dictator has made common cause with the suicidal religious fanatic. Alas, even the prowar Economist magazine pronounced it “the weakest part of the case for war.”

The administration points to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom it links to al-Qaeda and who received medical treatment in Baghdad. The Ansar al-Islam group is said to include al-Qaeda soldiers and to have established a poisons training camp.

It’s not clear how much credence to give to information gleaned from American captives, however. They could hope to win favor with their interrogators or provoke another conflict with America.

Moreover, al-Zarqawi’s ties to al-Qaeda are thin — it is not a rigid organization with a well-defined membership. German intelligence says al-Zarqawi’s al-Tawhid organization is more like an affiliate, and one focused on the Palestinians (and Jordan), not the U.S. An American intelligence analyst argues that al-Zarqawi “is outside bin Laden’s circle. He is not sworn al-Qaeda.”

The alleged link to Baghdad is especially threadbare: al-Zarqawi has worked more closely with Iran, also visited Lebanon and Syria, and been aided by a member of the royal family of Qatar. One German intelligence officer told the New York Times: “as of yet we have seen no indication of a direct link between Zarqawi and Baghdad.”

Nor is there solid evidence that either Hussein or Osama bin Laden supports Ansar al-Islam. In fact, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reports that the group is tied to Iran.

Ansar al-Islam asserts a desire to overthrow Hussein and impose an Islamic theocracy, and is operating in territory no longer under Baghdad’s control because of America’s “no-fly zone” policy. As for the alleged poisons lab, even many Kurds say that they haven’t heard of it.

Although the allegations are dubious, the Bush administration has brought enormous pressure to bear on U.S. intelligence agencies to prove them. Yet the CIA and FBI remain skeptical. Of Powell’s claims, one intelligence official told the New York Times: “We just don’t think it’s there.”

The Blair government has done little better. A recent British intelligence report concludes that “any fledgling relationship foundered due to mistrust and incompatible ideology.”

Alleged connections between Baghdad and al-Qaeda must be viewed as inherently suspect. “They are natural enemies,” observes Daniel Benjamin, a former National Security Council staff member.

The biggest problem with the theory, however, is the fact that we are still alive. If there was a link, we all, or at least a lot of us, should be dead.

Last October, U.S. President George W. Bush declared that Iraq could attack America or its allies “on any given day” with chemical or biological weapons. But Hussein has not attacked.

Or, explained Bush: “Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapons to a terrorist group.” But Hussein has not done so.

Apparently Hussein wants to stay alive. He understands that an attack, direct or indirect, would trigger overwhelming, annihilating retaliation.

However much he hates America, he doesn’t want to die. As CIA Director George Tenet put it last October: Iraq “for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or chemical or biological weapons.”

Alas, the Bush administration is pursuing the one course that will eliminate this deterrence. Attack Iraq, and Hussein has no incentive not to strike and then hand off any remaining weapons to terrorists.

Notes Tenet: Facing defeat, Hussein “probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions.” Indeed, he might see helping Islamists use such weapons against the U.S. as “his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him.”

Hussein wouldn’t even have to give an order. As Benjamin explains, “In the fog of war, much of this material would rapidly be ‘privatized’ — liberated by colonels, security service operatives and soon-to-be unemployed scientists.”

The best evidence that Iraq can be deterred is that Americans are alive today. Unfortunately, seeking to oust Hussein removes any leverage to prevent him from conducting the sort of attack that the Bush administration claims to most fear. Attacking Iraq will make more, and more dangerous, terrorist attacks more likely.

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