- The Washington Times - Friday, June 18, 2004

President Bush yesterday said Saddam Hussein had ties to al Qaeda before and after the September 11 attacks, in his first response to an investigative panel’s portrayal of the relationship as not a “collaborative” one.

“This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al Qaeda,” Mr. Bush said after a meeting with his Cabinet. “We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.”

Mr. Bush said intelligence reports since the fall of Iraq also have shown links between Saddam’s regime and al Qaeda.

The relationship, Mr. Bush said, included Saddam’s regime giving a safe haven to Abu Musab Zarqawi before the Iraq war — a man now considered the most dangerous terrorist in Iraq and the leader of an al Qaeda offshoot.

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States on Tuesday said there is “no credible evidence” Saddam had any connection to September 11. It also said meetings between Iraqi officials and al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, “do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship.”

The commission’s report neither addressed Zarqawi’s group, Tawhid, nor Ansar al-Islam, a radical Islamist group in northern Iraq that emerged days before September 11 and had possible links to bin Laden and Saddam.”

“What we have found is, were there contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq? Yes. Some of them were shadowy, but they were there,” said Thomas H. Kean, head of the commission and a former Republican governor of New Jersey.

Mr. Bush has been criticized repeatedly by Democrats who say the administration implied Saddam participated in the September 11 attacks — a view that polls show the public has held since immediately after the attacks — and used it as a central premise for overthrowing Saddam.

“The administration misled America and the administration reached too far,” Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry said Tuesday. “They did not tell the truth to Americans about what was happening or their intentions.”

Mr. Bush said his administration never fostered the perception of Saddam’s participation in the attacks and reiterated why Saddam posed danger to the United States.

“He was a threat because he had used weapons of mass destruction against his own people,” Mr. Bush said. “He was a threat because he was a sworn enemy to the United States of America, just like al Qaeda. He was a threat because he had terrorist connections — not only al Qaeda connections, but other connections to terrorist organizations.”

“He was a threat because he provided safe haven for a terrorist like Zarqawi, who is still killing innocents inside of Iraq,” the president said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said those who see a contradiction between the commission report and the president “are not looking at the facts,” and are trying to “spin certain things.”

“Let’s talk about the facts,” Mr. McClellan said. “Look at exactly what was said before removing that regime in power.”

Mr. McClellan said the administration’s statements are consistent with the commission’s findings.

“[The commission] said there were high-level contacts between Saddam’s regime in Iraq and al Qaeda,” Mr. McClellan said, pointing to the report’s claims of several meetings in the 1990s in Sudan between Iraqi intelligence officials and bin Laden.

Mr. McClellan also pointed to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s presentation to the United Nations before the war. Mr. Powell cited several meetings between Iraqi officials and members of al Qaeda at “senior levels since the mid-1990s,” and similar reports given by CIA Director George J. Tenet.

In the Cabinet meeting, the 25th of the administration, Mr. Bush told members he continues to have a “firm resolve” in Iraq.

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