WASHINGTON—In the bitter debate over former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's alleged ties to al-Qaida, the final report of the Sept. 11 commission offers ammunition for both sides.
Although President Bush cited links between Iraq and the terrorist network as a key reason for going to war, the commission said it could find no evidence that they collaborated on attacks against the United States or any other target. It largely discounted a reported meeting between hijacking leader Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi diplomat that was said to have taken place in Prague, Czech Republic, on April 9, 2001.
If anything, there was more concrete evidence of assistance by Iran to al-Qaida, the commission said. It said the Iranian government apparently aided the transit of some of the Sept. 11 hijackers from Afghanistan through Iran, although there's no evidence the government was aware of the Sept. 11 plot.
But there were meetings between top al-Qaida operatives and Iraqi agents spanning some five years. At one point, as some members of the Taliban government in Afghanistan were pressuring al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden to leave the country, Iraqi officials may have offered him asylum, the commission said.
Contacts between al-Qaida and Iraq were initiated in 1994 or 1995 by Sudanese officials, who persuaded bin Laden to end his support for a radical Islamic group in northern Iraq that was opposed to Saddam. Bin Laden was living in Sudan at the time.
During this period, bin Laden met several times with Iraqi representatives in Sudan, requesting help in establishing al-Qaida training camps in Iraq, but apparently got no response.
In 1998, after bin Laden had moved to Afghanistan, Iraq began reaching out to him. The final commission report said an Iraqi delegation traveled to Afghanistan in July of that year to meet with officials of the Taliban government and bin Laden.
"Similar meetings between Iraqi officials and bin Laden or his aides may have occurred in 1999 during a period of some strains with the Taliban," said the commission, known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. "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."
In the end, however, the commission said, "we have seen no evidence that these earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship."
The commission also considered evidence that bin Laden and Iraq jointly developed a nerve-gas factory in Sudan.
In testimony before the commission March 17, former Defense Secretary William Cohen said soil samples from around the plant showed evidence of EMPTA, a component of nerve gas that doesn't occur naturally and has no commercial application. Cohen testified that the manager of the plant had gone to Baghdad to meet with the "father" of the Iraqi nerve-gas program and the plant appeared to have been financed at least partially by bin Laden.
Former President Clinton and former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger made the same assertion in testimony before the commission during private sessions.
Based on that evidence, the United States decided to attack the plant with cruise missiles on Aug. 20, 1998.
At a news conference Thursday, the chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, said intelligence from foreign sources contradicted some of the information by the U.S. government had gathered. He said the commission had concluded that it wasn't clear the plant was a nerve gas factory or that bin Laden had helped finance it.
"We gave weight to (Cohen's) testimony, and it's the same belief that President Clinton had, the same belief that Sandy Berger had," Kean said. "But there are a whole bunch of people on the other side who dispute that finding, who say there is no independent collaborative evidence that those chemicals were there. And this is a debate that goes on."
The commission also cited problems with accounts of the alleged meeting between hijack leader Atta and Iraqi diplomat Samir al Ani in Prague on April 9, 2001.
Although the Czech government initially said it had an eyewitness account of the meeting, the commission said cell phone records suggested Atta was in the United States at the time. Czech officials eventually produced information that indicated Ani wasn't at the embassy at the time the meeting was supposed to have taken place.
Moreover, Atta didn't turn up in surveillance photos taken of the embassy by the Czech government on the day of the alleged meeting.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.