Sunday, July 25, 2004

The September 11 commission’s final report features the most thorough account to date of a subject hotly debated since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003: the relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Pulling from more than 2 million classified files and from interrogations of several detained terrorists, the report portrays a relationship spanning several years with contacts initiated at some points by Iraq and at others by al Qaeda.

But the commission ultimately concluded it had seen “no evidence” that the contacts “ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship.” Nor was there evidence that “Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.”

The key word in the final report’s phrasing is “operational,” which was omitted from an earlier report by the September 11 commission’s staff that said the contacts had not developed into a “collaborative relationship.”

Part of the Bush administration’s argument for invading Iraq — particularly statements by Vice President Dick Cheney — centered on claims about strong ties between Saddam and al Qaeda.

Such claims are bolstered in some cases and weakened in others by the September 11 commission’s 567-page final report, Chapter 2 of which offers the following conclusions:

cThere is “evidence” that in 1997, bin Laden “sent out a number of feelers to the Iraqi regime, offering some cooperation. None are reported to have received a significant response. According to one report, Saddam Hussein’s efforts at this time to rebuild relations with the Saudis and other Middle Eastern regimes led him to stay clear of bin Laden.”

cIn mid-1998, the situation reversed, with Iraq reportedly taking the initiative. “In March 1998, after bin Laden’s public fatwa against the United States, two al Qaeda members reportedly went to Iraq to meet with Iraqi intelligence. In July, an Iraqi delegation traveled to Afghanistan to meet first with the Taliban and then with bin Laden. Sources reported that one, or perhaps both, of these meetings was apparently arranged through bin Laden’s Egyptian deputy, [Ayman al] Zawahiri, who had ties of his own to the Iraqis.”

cSimilar meetings “may have occurred in 1999. … According to the reporting, Iraqi officials offered bin Laden a safe haven in Iraq. Bin Laden declined, apparently judging that his circumstances in Afghanistan remained more favorable than the Iraqi alternative. The reports describe friendly contacts and indicated some common themes in both sides’ hatred of the United States.”

In addition to the “collaboration” matter, significant debate has swirled around the issue of whether Mohamed Atta, who piloted one of the hijacked jets that slammed into the World Trade Center on September 11, had met with an Iraqi official in Prague in April 2001.

In its report, the September 11 commission said Atta “is known to have been in Prague on two occasions” — once for a single night in December 1994, and once for a single night in June 2000. But, the commission cited FBI evidence placing Atta in Florida when the 2001 meeting is said to have occurred.

Meanwhile, the report appears to suggest that in the days after September 11, some in the Bush administration were eager to find ways to politicize the attacks into a basis for invading Iraq. According to the report, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the commission that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had argued at the time “that Iraq was ultimately the source of the terrorist problem and should therefore be attacked.”

The report offers a direct quote of what Mr. Powell told the commission: “Paul was always of the view that Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with. … And he saw this as one way of using this event as a way to deal with the Iraq problem.”

President Bush did not give Mr. Wolfowitz’s argument “much weight,” Mr. Powell told the commission, adding that although the president continued to “worry about Iraq” in the following week, he ultimately “saw Afghanistan as the priority.”

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