Bush Reasserts Hussein-Al Qaeda Link
President Draws Distinction Between Involvement in 9/11 Attacks, Other Contact
By Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 17, 2004; 3:00 PM
President Bush insisted today that "numerous contacts" between the ousted government of Saddam Hussein and the al Qaeda terrorist network showed that the former Iraqi leader was a threat to the United States, despite a report by the Sept. 11 commission that found no "collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda.
"The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda [is] because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda," Bush told reporters after a Cabinet meeting at the White House.
Bush said the contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda provided proof of a relationship.
The report, issued yesterday by the bipartisan commission investigating the 2001 terrorist attack on the United States, said that all relevant classified information that it reviewed showed that the contacts that took place between Iraq and al Qaeda officials never led to actual cooperation.
In yesterday's hearing of the panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, a senior FBI official and a senior CIA analyst concurred with the finding.
The report challenged one of the Bush administration's main justifications for the war in Iraq. Along with the contention that Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, Bush, Vice President Cheney and other top administration officials have often asserted that there were extensive ties between Hussein's government and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. Earlier this year, Cheney said evidence of a link was "overwhelming."
Asked about the commission's findings on an Iraq-al Qaeda link, Bush said, "This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al Qaeda. We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. For example, Iraqi intelligence officers met with bin Laden, the head of al Qaeda, in the Sudan. There's numerous contacts between the two."
Bush said he had called Saddam Hussein a threat "because he had used weapons of mass destruction against his own people. He was a threat because he was a sworn enemy to the United States of America, just like al Qaeda. Now, he was a threat because he had terrorist connections, not only al Qaeda connections but other connections to terrorist organizations."
Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean, asked at a news conference about Bush's comments, said the panel did not dispute that there were contacts between Hussein's government and al Qaeda. But Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said the panel's staff found "that there is no credible evidence that we can discover, after a long investigation, that Iraq and Saddam Hussein were in any way part of the attack on the United States."
Vice chairman Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman, said, "I must say, I have trouble understanding the flap over this." The commission's position, he said, is that "we don't have any evidence of a cooperative . . . relationship between Saddam Hussein's government and these al Qaeda operatives with regard to the attacks on the United States."
The commission's staff report said that bin Laden "explored possible cooperation with Iraq" while in Sudan through 1996, but that "Iraq apparently never responded" to a bin Laden request for help in 1994. The commission cited reports of contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda after bin Laden went to Afghanistan in 1996, adding, "but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States."
The finding challenges a belief held by large numbers of Americans about al Qaeda's ties to Hussein. According to a Harris poll in late April, a plurality of Americans, 49 percent to 36 percent, believe "clear evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda has been found."
As recently as Monday, Cheney said in a speech that Hussein "had long-established ties with al Qaeda." Bush, asked on Tuesday to verify or qualify that claim, defended it by pointing to Abu Musab Zarqawi, who has taken credit for a wave of attacks in Iraq.
In his remarks today, Bush again mentioned Zarqawi, a Palestinian born in Jordan who runs the al Tawhid terrorist network. Bush said Hussein had "provided safe haven for a terrorist like Zarqawi, who is still killing innocents inside of Iraq."
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