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Tuesday, October 05, 2004 - Page updated at 01:11 A.M.
Fresh CIA analysis: No evidence Saddam colluded with al-Qaida
By Warren P. Strobel, Jonathan S. Landay and John Walcott
WASHINGTON A new CIA assessment undercuts the White House's claim that Saddam Hussein maintained ties to al-Qaida, saying there's no conclusive evidence that the regime harbored Osama bin Laden associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The CIA review, which U.S. officials said yesterday was requested some months ago by Vice President Dick Cheney, is the latest assessment that calls into question one of President Bush's key justifications for last year's U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The new assessment follows the independent Sept. 11 commission's finding that there was no "collaborative relationship" between the former Iraqi regime and bin Laden's terrorist network.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his Feb. 5, 2003, presentation on Iraq to the U.N. Security Council, said al-Zarqawi went to Baghdad in May 2002 for medical treatment and stayed two months, during which nearly 24 extremists converged on the Iraqi capital and established a base there. Al-Zarqawi originally was reported to have had a leg amputated, a claim officials now acknowledge was incorrect.
Al-Zarqawi is a major figure who's directing part of the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq.
Bush and Cheney have repeatedly said al-Zarqawi, a native of Jordan, was an associate of bin Laden and received safe haven from Saddam.
But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld backed away yesterday from such claims, apparently as a result of the new CIA assessment.
Rumsfeld appeared to refer to the new assessment during a public appearance at which he also backed away from the administration's broader claims that Saddam and al-Qaida were linked.
"To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two," Rumsfeld said during an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington research center.
Apparently referring to al-Zarqawi, the defense secretary said yesterday: "I just read an intelligence report recently about one person who's connected to al-Qaida who was in and out of Iraq and there's the most tortured description of why he might have had a relationship and why he might not have had a relationship."
In June at the White House, Bush said, "Zarqawi's the best evidence of connection to al-Qaida affiliates and al-Qaida. He's the person who's still killing. He's the person, remember the e-mail exchange between al-Qaida leadership and he himself about how to disrupt the progress toward freedom." In Ohio on Saturday, Bush said al-Zarqawi "was in and out of Baghdad. He ordered the killing of an American citizen from Baghdad: [U.S. Agency for International Development official Laurence] Foley."
A U.S. official familiar with the new CIA assessment said the report contained new details of al-Zarqawi's prewar activities in Iraq, including the arrests in late 2002 or early 2003 of three of his "associates" by the regime.
"This was brought to Saddam's attention and he ordered one of them released," he said.
"What is indisputable is that Zarqawi was operating out of Baghdad and was involved in a lot of bad activities," the official said, including ordering Foley's killing.
There's no dispute that al-Zarqawi spent time in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, but virtually all that time was in a portion of northeastern Iraq that wasn't under Saddam's control.
Some officials believe that Saddam's secular regime kept an eye on al-Zarqawi, an Islamic extremist, but didn't actively assist him. While he clearly shares much of al-Qaida's violent ideology and ran an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan, the Jordanian has his own organization, acts independently and hasn't sworn fealty to bin Laden.
In recent weeks, administration partisans have sharply criticized the U.S. intelligence community for a new analysis that offers a pessimistic outlook on Iraq's future. They've attacked one of the report's authors, National Intelligence Council official Paul Pillar, by name and accused the CIA of trying to undermine the president. Bush called the report, known as a National Intelligence Estimate, a "guess," but later amended his remarks to call it an "estimate."
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