An allegation that a high-ranking al Qaeda member was an officer in Saddam Hussein's private militia may have resulted from confusion over Iraqi names, a senior administration official said yesterday.
Former Navy secretary John Lehman, a Republican member of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said Sunday that documents found in Iraq "indicate that there is at least one officer of Saddam's Fedayeen, a lieutenant colonel, who was a very prominent member of al Qaeda." Although he said the identity "still has to be confirmed," Lehman introduced the information on NBC's "Meet the Press" to counter a commission staff report that said there were contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda but no "collaborative relationship."
Yesterday, the senior administration official said Lehman had probably confused two people who have similar-sounding names.
One of them is Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi, identified as an al Qaeda "fixer" in Malaysia. Officials say he served as an airport greeter for al Qaeda in January 2000 in Kuala Lumpur, at a gathering for members who were to be involved in the attacks on the USS Cole, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Iraqi military documents, found last year, listed a similar name, Lt. Col. Hikmat Shakir Ahmad, on a roster of Hussein's militia, Saddam's Fedayeen.
"By most reckoning that would be someone else" other than the airport greeter, said the administration official, who would speak only anonymously because of the matter's sensitivity. He added that the identification issue is still being studied but "it doesn't look like a match to most analysts."
In an interview yesterday, Lehman said it is still possible the man in Kuala Lumpur was affiliated with Hussein, even if he isn't the man on the Fedayeen roster. "It's one more instance where this is an intriguing possibility that needs to be run to ground," Lehman said. "The most intriguing part of it is not whether or not he was in the Fedayeen, but whether or not the guy who attended Kuala Lumpur had any connections to Iraqi intelligence. . . . We don't know."
Allegations that Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi was under Iraqi intelligence control were raised last year in an article in the Weekly Standard by Stephen F. Hayes, and later discounted by U.S. intelligence officials. No such tie was indicated in the commission report.
The commission staff report, released Wednesday, prompted a vigorous response from the Bush administration, which had cited since 2002 an al Qaeda-Hussein link as one reason for going to war. Just last week, Vice President Cheney said in a television interview he "probably" knew intelligence about Iraq's ties to terrorists that the commission had not received, but added, "I don't know what they know."
On Sunday, Lehman said, "The vice president was right when he said that he may have things that we don't yet have."
Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean and Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton have asked the administration to provide any additional information it has. Commission spokesman Al Felzenberg said no new requests for information have been sent, but the panel has long-standing requests for documents. Cheney's spokesman, Kevin Kellems, said that, to his knowledge, the vice president has received no new requests.