Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 26

Government officials in Moscow, London and Washington constantly repeat the claim that the Chechen separatist movement cooperates with global terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda. The mainstream media often repeat this theme uncritically–much as they repeat the assertion that the Chechen people overwhelmingly endorsed the Putin and Kadyrov administrations’ pro-Moscow constitution in the March referendum. By dint of sheer repetition, the official version has come to be taken for granted.

Chechnya Weekly has repeatedly tried to get those who make such allegations to provide specific details. For the most part the results have been frustrating, but we shall continue to try.

For example, vague reports have been circulating for months about the alleged presence of Chechen fighters alongside militants from Syria and other Arab countries in combat against U.S. troops in Iraq. The deputy commander of the U.S.-British coalition forces said last month that several Chechens had been killed by American forces in the fighting. Chechnya Weekly has repeatedly asked the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon for more information: For example, on what basis did U.S. forces conclude that those killed were Chechens rather than Russian-speaking Muslims from other parts of the former Soviet Union such as Uzbekistan or Tatarstan? What sort of documents were found on their bodies, if any, and what evidence is there from other sources that they were in fact Chechens? Our conversations with officials suggest that the U.S. government is not particularly interested in learning the answers; a spokeswoman for the U.S. Defense Department said that such questions were irrelevant to the mission of defeating Saddam Hussein’s loyalists in Iraq. (In the short run that is of course true, but one would hope that the U.S. government would be willing to take a longer term perspective on relations with various elements of the Islamic world.)

The British parliamentary system’s tradition of “question time” makes it easier in London than it is in Washington for skeptics to question the head of state directly about such matters. Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of the western leaders least willing to say anything about Chechnya (or anything else) that would displease the administration of President Vladimir Putin, has personally repeated the vague reports about Chechen fighters in Iraq and has treated them as if they were established fact. On July 9 a Conservative Party member of the House of Commons challenged Blair either to produce firm proof of these allegations or to retract them. The prime minister admitted that the allegations were unverified.

In a recent telephone conversation with Chechnya Weekly, a U.S. government official who insisted on anonymity said that it was impossible to provide a precise number of Chechens known to have been killed in combat in Iraq–or indeed whether that number has been firmly established to be more than zero. But he told us that if there have been such Chechen fighters, the number most likely is in the single digits rather than in the scores or hundreds.