By most estimates Al-Qaeda consists of under 5,000 members: while it is certainly capable of random, bloody atrocities, it is not likely to win an open war with any sizeable standing army. Nevertheless, it has been uncommonly successful as an underground "terrorist" organization …and as a shadowy bugbear which can be used for any purpose by skilled propagandists. The Russians were able to gloss over their long history of human rights abuses in Chechnya by linking the Chechen rebels to Bin Laden: the Chinese could increase the pressure on their Moslem Uighur separatists in the name of "fighting terrorism," while various Arab and Central Asian leaders claimed their own repressive governments were the only alternative to "fundamentalist Islamic regimes."
Closer to home, the Bush administration has been trying desperately to link Sadaam Hussein to Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda. The recent Osama Bin Laden tape wherein he threatened dire consequences for any Islamic nation which helped the U.S. in its war against Iraq was presented as a smoking gun. Before that, there was a purported visit by Mohammed Atta to the Iraqi Embassy in Prague, a visit which is now believed by most to be either a blatant lie or a case of mistaken identity. Few doubt that Al-Qaeda receives extensive support from the Arab world… but few unbiased scholars would link much of that support to Sadaam Hussein.
Al-Qaeda's members seek to fight "infidels" and those who do not recognize the rule of Islam in every sphere of life - religious, political, military and otherwise. They have no love for secular Arab leaders … in other words, for anybody who is ruling in today's Arab world. They are particularly revolted by Arab socialists like Sadaam Hussein's "Ba'ath Party." To them, Hussein is far too tolerant of things like short skirts, consumption of alcohol and religious minorities… never mind his espousal of an atheistic and humanistic worldview like socialism. Bin Laden might tell his followers that they should offer the "Crusaders" no support against their Arab brothers and sisters in Iraq … but that is likely to be the extent of his support.
Sadaam Hussein has time and again shown himself to be a skilled and ruthless leader: it is highly unlikely that he would give aid and comfort to an organization which could become one of his most powerful competitors. The last thing Hussein wants is a wave of fundamentalist outrage in Iraq, bringing his reign to a Shah-of-Iran-like flameout. And, of course, he knows full well that open support for Al-Qaeda would provide the U.S. with a ready-made excuse for their invasion. Since the beginning of this conflict Hussein has shown his expertise at dancing on the tightwire, making the smallest possible concessions to stave off a war. There would be no reason for him to change that in exchange for the miniscule support which Al-Qaeda could provide.
If anybody stands to gain from an invasion of Iraq, it is Osama Bin Laden. While the Arab world generally sees Hussein as a bloodthirsty dictator (and rightly so), they are not likely to support an American invasion. A war with Iraq - particularly a war with heavy casualties, or one which involved nuclear weapons - would only serve to further radicalize the Arab street, and whip up greater support for Osama Bin Laden and for fundamentalist Islam. In a war which resulted in Hussein's overthrow, Bin Laden could wind up the big winner. The U.S. may well find itself sitting atop an ethnic powderkeg, forced to keep order in a California-sized patch of land as it dissolves into post-Yugoslavia anarchy. Any reconstruction effort would require a massive influx of personnel and resources … and would only serve to heighten the perception that America was trying to "build an empire." This would result in tensions among our "allies" - already many Europeans are comparing Bush unfavorably with Hussein, despite the fact that Bush has never gassed any ethnic minorities and appears guilty of stupidity rather than ruthlessness. And, of course, neither the Chinese nor the Russians are going to feel comfortable with a long-lasting and large American presence near their borders. This, combined with growing radicalism and anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic world, could well leave us trapped in a nasty and costly quagmire.
Ironically enough, Al-Qaeda does have a fair amount of support in northern Iraq, in the area which is protected by the United States. Throughout their history the Kurdish people have never seen themselves as a unified state, but rather as a loose and frequently squabbling confederation of tribes and extended families. Forced to define themselves as a state, many have sought a model in Maoism; still others have looked to Islamic law. Fundamentalist militant Kurds have been responsible for a number of atrocities in Turkey and Iraq, including the "honor killings" of rape victims who had sex, albeit involuntarily, outside marriage and attacks on Christians, Yezidis, and other minorities within the region. These same militants will likely see Hussein's fall as a chance to gain control of the region… and are not likely to be sympathetic to American interests despite our support.