Al Qaeda-Hussein Link Is Dismissed
Shortly after Cheney asserted these links, Bush contradicted him, saying: "We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11th." But Bush added: "There's no question that Saddam Hussein had al Qaeda ties."
In January, Cheney repeated his view that Iraq was tied to al Qaeda, saying that "there's overwhelming evidence" of an Iraq-al Qaeda connection. He said he was "very confident there was an established relationship there."
The commission staff, in yesterday's report, said that while bin Laden was in Sudan between 1991 and 1996, a senior Iraqi intelligence officer made three visits to Sudan, and that he had a meeting with bin Laden in 1994. Bin Laden was reported to have sought training camps and assistance in getting weapons, "but Iraq never responded," the staff said. The report said that bin Laden "at one time sponsored anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan."
As for the Atta meeting in Prague mentioned by Cheney, the commission staff concluded: "We do not believe that such a meeting occurred." It cited FBI photographic and telephone evidence, along with Czech and U.S. investigations, as well as reports from detainees, including the Iraqi official with whom Atta was alleged to have met. On the 1993 trade center bombing, the staff found "substantial uncertainty" about whether bin Laden and al Qaeda were involved.
At yesterday's hearing, commissioner Fred F. Fielding questioned the staff's finding of no apparent cooperation between bin Laden and Hussein. He pointed to a sentence in the first sealed indictment in 2001 of the al Qaeda members accused of the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; that sentence said al Qaeda reached an understanding with Iraq that they would not work against each other and would cooperate on acquiring arms.
Patrick J. Fitzgerald, now a U.S. attorney in Illinois, who oversaw the African bombing case, told the commission that reference was dropped in a superceding indictment because investigators could not confirm al Qaeda's relationship with Iraq as they had done with its ties to Iran, Sudan and Hezbollah. The original material came from an al Qaeda defector who told prosecutors that what he had heard was secondhand.
The staff report on Iraq was brief. Though not confirming any Iraqi collaboration with al Qaeda, it did not specifically address two of the other pieces of evidence the administration has offered to link Iraq to al Qaeda: Zarqawi's Tawhid organization and the Ansar al-Islam group.
In October 2002, Bush described Zarqawi, a Palestinian born in Jordan, as "one very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks."
Zarqawi wrote a January 2003 letter to bin Laden's lieutenants, intercepted at the Iraqi border, saying that if al Qaeda adopted his approach in Iraq, he would swear "fealty to you [bin Laden] publicly and in the news media."
In March, in a statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Tenet described Zarqawi's network as among groups having "links" to al Qaeda but with its own "autonomous leadership . . . own targets [and] they plan their own attacks."
Although Zarqawi may have cooperated with al Qaeda in the past, officials said it is increasingly clear that he has been operating independently of bin Laden's group and has his own network of operatives.
The other group, Ansar al-Islam, began in 2001 among Kurdish Sunni Islamic fundamentalists in northern Iraq, fighting against the two secular Kurdish groups that operated under the protection of the United States. At one point, bin Laden supported Ansar, as did Zarqawi, who is believed to have visited their area more than once. Tenet referred to Ansar as one of the Sunni groups that had benefited from al Qaeda links.
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