WASHINGTON -- Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein rejected pleas for assistance from Osama bin Laden and tried to capture terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi when he was in Iraq, a Senate Intelligence Committee report released yesterday found, casting further doubt on the Bush administration's rationale for invading Iraq.
President Bush and other administration officials repeatedly cited Saddam's alleged ties to radical Islamic terrorists before the March 2003 invasion as one reason to take military action against Iraq.
The 150-page report said the administration's claims were untrue. "Postwar findings indicate that Saddam Hussein was distrustful of al-Qaida and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from al-Qaida to provide material or operational support," the report said.
The report was released along with a second one that said false information from the exile group Iraqi National Congress, or INC, led by Ahmad Chalabi, was widely distributed in prewar intelligence reports and used to support intelligence assessments about Iraq's weapons and links to terrorism. Intelligence officials repeatedly warned that the INC was unreliable, but White House and Pentagon officials ignored the warnings.
The reports are part of a five-report study that the Senate Intelligence Committee has undertaken into the Bush administration's use of intelligence before the invasion of Iraq.
The study has left the committee badly divided. Three reports remain classified, including one comparing prewar statements by Bush administration officials to intelligence available at the time. Democrats have accused Republicans of delaying the reports until after the November congressional elections.
Yesterday, Democrats charged that the reports showed that the White House had manipulated intelligence to make the case for war to the American people.
"The administration ignored warnings prior to the war about the veracity of the intelligence it trumpeted publicly to support its case that Iraq was an imminent threat to the security of the United States," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the panel's vice chairman.
Republicans rejected that allegation and said the reports added little to what was already known. "The long-known fact is that the prewar intelligence was wrong. That flawed intelligence was used by policymakers, both in the administration and in Congress, as one of numerous justifications to go to war in Iraq," said committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
In the run-up to the war, Mr. Bush and his advisers repeatedly sought to link Saddam and al-Qaida, stopping just short of accusing the Iraqi leader of a role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "You can't distinguish between al-Qaida and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror," Mr. Bush said on Sept. 25, 2002.
On the same day, then White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, now the secretary of state, said, "High-ranking detainees have said that Iraq provided some training to al-Qaida in chemical weapons development."
The detainee that Ms. Rice referred to was al-Qaida operative Ibn al Shaykh al Libi, who was captured in Pakistan in November 2001 and who was, according to U.S. intelligence officials, tortured by Egyptian authorities after his transfer to that country.
The Senate report says that in February 2002, months before Ms. Rice spoke, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that Mr. Libi "was likely intentionally misleading his briefers."
Postwar information on Saddam's relations with Islamic extremists came from numerous sources, the report suggests, including seized documents and interrogations of Saddam himself, former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and a senior Iraqi spy, Faruq Hijazi.
The report, quoting from an FBI debriefing of Mr. Hijazi, said that when an Iraqi operative met bin Laden in Sudan in 1995, bin Laden asked that Saddam allow him to open an office in Iraq, give him Chinese-made sea mines and military training, and broadcast his speeches.
"According to Hijazi, Saddam immediately refused," the FBI debriefing said.
Regarding Mr. Zarqawi, the Senate report cites information that has surfaced since the war indicating that Saddam "attempted, unsuccessfully, to locate and capture" him, and that the Iraqi regime "did not have a relationship with, harbor or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi."
Mr. Zarqawi, who operated from a part of northern Iraq that Saddam didn't control, was a key part of Mr. Bush's case for war. After the invasion, he became the head of the group al Qaida in Iraq. U.S. bombs killed him in June.
The second report released yesterday confirms that the INC had "an aggressive 'publicity campaign' prior to the war to bring defectors to the attention of 'anyone who would listen.' "
While many committee Republicans dismissed the INC report's conclusions as unsupported by the facts, two of them -- Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska -- voted for harsher language that Democrats proposed.
The report, which ran 211 pages, disclosed that three months after the White House approved continued funding for the INC's intelligence collection in July 2002, the Defense Intelligence Agency warned that the group "was penetrated by hostile intelligence services," including Iran's. It is unclear whether top White House officials were aware of the warning.
The Senate report also confirms a McClatchy Newspapers report that former CIA Director R. James Woolsey helped get an INC defector attention from the U.S. government by referring him to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Linton Wells.
The defector, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al Haideri, suggested that he had knowledge of dozens of sites related to weapons of mass destruction, but none of them was ever found, and Mr. Haideri, when taken to Iraq in early 2004, couldn't identify the facilities that he claimed he knew about.