WASHINGTON — Members of a special U.N. terrorism committee investigating al-Qaida said Thursday that they had seen no evidence of the terrorist network's alleged ties with Iraq, which were a major justification President Bush cited for going to war.
"Nothing has come to our notice that would indicate links between Iraq and al-Qaida," Michael Chandler, the committee's chief investigator, said at a briefing at U.N. headquarters in New York.
Members of the committee, created to monitor al-Qaida and its financing, also said the U.S. government had given them no information to support its claims of collaboration between al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and the former Saddam Hussein regime.
Chandler, in a later telephone interview with Knight Ridder, cautioned that the committee's mandate is not Iraq but the global al-Qaida network, and therefore it may not be privy to all relevant information about Iraq.
The White House is coming under increasing pressure to provide evidence that Saddam had reconstituted his weapons of mass destruction programs and had ties to Osama bin Laden, as Bush and his aides claimed before the war.
On Capitol Hill, Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee agreed that the panel would look into a Pentagon office that was set up by pro-invasion hard-liners to process intelligence from Iraqi exile groups that the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department regarded as untrustworthy.
Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the committee's senior Democrat, said a preliminary inquiry by bipartisan staffers had found that news reports were credible that the Pentagon's "Office of Special Plans" had failed to share some intelligence with regular intelligence agencies and had provided information directly to Bush that wasn't verified through proper channels.
Meanwhile, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., introduced legislation that would establish an independent commission to examine the intelligence the Bush administration used in portraying Saddam as a threat to U.S. security. The proposal, however, appeared unlikely to pass over Republican opposition.
The House of Representatives and Senate intelligence committees are conducting closed-door reviews.
Administration officials asserted Thursday that the discovery in Iraq of 12-year-old buried components for a centrifuge that could be used to purify uranium for a nuclear weapon helps make their case. They also rebuffed suggestions that two mobile labs that the CIA says were biological-weapons production plants might have been constructed for other purposes.
On the terrorism issue, administration spokesmen repeated their position that Iraq had ties with al-Qaida.
A U.S. official said intelligence agencies had received new information since Saddam's overthrow in April of past cooperation between his regime and the terrorist network.
"We have received additional information that tells us our reasons for concern were well-founded," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information is classified. He refused to elaborate, however.
Other knowledgeable officials said intelligence suggesting such a link was tenuous at best, and that while some al-Qaida associates might have been in Iraq, there was no evidence of active cooperation in carrying out terrorist operations.
"The bottom line is that most of what the administration put out about Saddam making common cause with al-Qaida was politics, not intelligence," said a defense official, who also requested anonymity.
There was stronger evidence of Iraqi financial and material support to militant Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whose terrorist attacks have been confined to Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, he said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell made the administration's most detailed case of Iraq's terrorist connections during a presentation to the U.N. Security Council in February. He cited the presence in Iraq of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who ran a terrorist cell accused of murdering U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Jordan and attempted poison attacks in Europe.
But U.S. officials disagree on whether Zarqawi was a member of al-Qaida or ran an independent militant Islamic group.
Powell also described contacts in the early and mid-1990s between Iraqi agents and bin Laden associates. But the defense official and other officials said there was no evidence that anything came of the contacts in Sudan and Kandahar, Afghanistan.
The White House and State Department acknowledged Thursday that analysts in the State Department's intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, questioned whether it was premature to conclude that the trailers found in Iraq were used for biological production.
But they said they stood by the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency's original findings.
The administration has portrayed the trailers as the best evidence yet that the deposed Iraqi regime was concealing unconventional weapons programs from U.N. inspectors.
"The people with the most authority and the most knowledge and the best ability to be on the ground and to learn the facts, and therefore to be the strongest sources, have spoken," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
A senior intelligence official insisted that the agencies' analysis had been rigorous. Among other things, four "original" Iraqi sources who had provided information about the trailers to the United States before the war picked the two trailers out of a "lineup" of other trailers, he said.
On a related issue, the administration said the recovery in Baghdad of materials from Iraq's pre-1991 nuclear-weapons program bolstered U.S. charges.
The components and documents were turned over to American officials by Mahdi Shukur Obeidi, who oversaw Iraq's covert manufacturing of centrifuges, high-speed spinning devices that purify uranium for nuclear weapons.
Fleischer quoted Obeidi as saying the components and documents "represented a complete set of what would be needed to rebuild a centrifuge uranium-enrichment program."
Other experts interpreted the find differently.
"It does not demonstrate that Iraq had an active program or that they had reconstituted anything, and it certainly doesn't demonstrate that they posed a significant threat to the United States or anybody in the region. It certainly demonstrates that the regime was wily and secretive and creative in their approach to developing nuclear weapons, but that is old news," said Stephen Schwartz, the publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, which covers nuclear issues.