As President Bush works to quiet the growing tempest over his discredited claim of Iraqi uranium shopping in Africa, another of his prewar assertions is coming under fire: the purported link between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the al Qaeda network.
Before the war, Mr. Bush and members of his Cabinet said Saddam was harboring top al Qaeda operatives and suggested Iraq could slip the terrorist network chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons.
Critics attacked those assertions from the beginning for being counter to the ideologies of Saddam and the al Qaeda network and short on corroborative evidence. Now, two former Bush administration intelligence officials say the evidence linking Saddam to the group responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks was never more than sketchy at best.
“There was no significant pattern of cooperation between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist operation,” former State Department intelligence official Greg Thielmann said this week.
Intelligence agencies agreed on the “lack of a meaningful connection to al Qaeda” and said so to the White House and Congress, said Mr. Thielmann, who left State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research last September.
Another former Bush administration intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, agreed there was no clear link between Saddam and the al Qaeda network.
“The relationships that were plotted were episodic, not continuous,” the former official said.
A U.N. terrorism committee said it has no evidence — other than Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s assertions in his Feb. 5 U.N. speech — of any ties between al Qaeda and Iraq.
And U.S. officials say American forces searching in Iraq have found no significant evidence tying Saddam’s regime with Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.
“One of the things that concerns me is the continued reference to the war in Iraq as part of the war on terrorism. There’s not much evidence to support that linkage,” said Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and a presidential candidate.
In the weeks and months before the war, Mr. Bush and administration officials repeatedly said Saddam had ties to the al Qaeda network and other terrorist groups that could provide a pathway for weapons of mass destruction to find their way to terrorists. U.S. forces have so far not found any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Iraq.
U.S. officials, however, say that a handful of suspected al Qaeda members have been captured in Iraq, but most are probably low-level operatives.