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Hussein ties to al Qaeda appear faulty

The administration’s case on ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda relied on intelligence that was weaker than that on Iraq’s illegal weapons programs.

Miami Herald; Posted on Wed, Mar. 03, 2004

By WARREN P. STROBEL, JONATHAN S. LANDAY AND JOHN WALCOTT

WASHINGTON – The Bush administration’s assertion that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had ties to al Qaeda — one of the administration’s central arguments for a preemptive war — appears to have been based on even less solid intelligence than the administration’s claims that Iraq had hidden stocks of chemical and biological weapons.

Nearly a year after U.S. and British troops invaded Iraq, no evidence has turned up to verify allegations of Hussein’s links with al Qaeda, and several key parts of the administration’s case have either proved false or seem increasingly doubtful.

Senior U.S. officials now say there never was any evidence that Hussein’s secular police state and Osama bin Laden’s Islamic terrorism network were in league. At most, there were occasional meetings.

Moreover, the U.S. intelligence community never concluded that those meetings produced an operational relationship, American officials said. That verdict was in a secret report by the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence that was updated in January 2003, on the eve of the war.

”We could find no provable connection between Saddam and al Qaeda,” a senior U.S. official acknowledged.

The administration’s allegations that Hussein still had weapons of mass destruction have been the subject of much greater public and political controversy than its suggestions that Iraq and al Qaeda were in league. They were based on the Iraqi leader’s long history of duplicity regarding such weapons, which appeared to be confirmed by spy satellite photographs, information from defectors and electronic eavesdropping.

But the evidence of Iraq’s ties to al Qaeda was always sketchy, based largely on testimony of Iraqi defectors and prisoners, with limited reports from foreign agents and electronic eavesdropping.

Much of the evidence that’s now available indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda had no close ties, despite repeated contacts between the two; that the terrorists who administration officials claimed were links between the two had no direct connection to either Hussein or bin Laden; and that a key meeting between an Iraqi intelligence officer and one of the leaders of the Sept. 11 attacks probably never happened.

A Knight Ridder review of the Bush administration statements on Iraq’s links to terrorism and what’s now known about the classified intelligence has found that administration advocates of a preemptive invasion frequently hyped sketchy and sometimes false information to help make their case. Twice they neglected to report information that painted a less sinister picture.

The Bush administration has defended its prewar descriptions of Hussein and is calling Iraq ”the central front in the war on terrorism,” as the president told U.S. troops two weeks ago.

But before the war and since, Bush and his aides made rhetorical links that now appear to have been leaps:

  • Vice President Dick Cheney told National Public Radio in January that there was ”overwhelming evidence” of a relationship between Hussein and al Qaeda. Among the evidence he cited was Iraq’s harboring of Abdul Rahman Yasin, a suspect in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

    Cheney didn’t mention that Iraq had offered to turn over Yasin to the FBI in 1998, in return for a U.S. statement acknowledging that Iraq had no role in that attack. The Clinton administration refused the offer, because it was unwilling to reward Iraq for returning a fugitive.

  • Administration officials reported that Farouk Hijazi, a top Iraqi intelligence officer, had met with bin Laden in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1998 and offered him safe haven in Iraq.

    They left out the rest of the story, however. Bin Laden said he would consider the offer, U.S. intelligence officials said. But according to a report later made available to the CIA, the al Qaeda leader told an aide afterward that he had no intention of accepting Saddam’s offer because “if we go there, it would be his agenda, not ours.”

  • The administration linked Hussein to a terrorism network run by Palestinian Abu Musab al Zarqawi. That network may be behind the latest violence in Iraq, which killed at least 143 people Tuesday.

    But U.S. officials say the evidence that Zarqawi had close operational ties to al Qaeda appears increasingly doubtful.

    Asked for Cheney’s views on Iraq and terrorism, vice presidential spokesman Kevin Kellems referred Knight Ridder to the vice president’s television interviews Tuesday.

    Cheney, in an interview with CNN, said Zarqawi ran an ”al Qaeda-affiliated” group. He cited an intercepted letter that Zarqawi is believed to have written to al Qaeda leaders, and a White House official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity said the CIA has described Zarqawi as an al Qaeda “associate.”

    But U.S. officials say the Zarqawi letter contained a plea for help that al Qaeda rebuffed.

  • Iraqi defectors alleged that Saddam’s regime was helping to train Iraqi and non-Iraqi Arab terrorists at a site called Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. The allegation made it into a September 2002 white paper that the White House issued. The U.S. military has found no evidence of such a facility.
  • Bush, Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell made much of occasional contacts between Hussein’s regime and al Qaeda, dating to the early 1990s when bin Laden was based in the Sudan. But intelligence indicates that nothing ever came of the contacts.
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