WASHINGTON — Defenders of President Bush's charges that Saddam Hussein worked with al-Qaida have been citing what they say is new evidence that could help substantiate one of the administration's main justifications for invading Iraq.
They say the evidence is the name of a paramilitary officer in captured documents that appears identical to that of an Iraqi who met two Sept. 11 hijackers in Malaysia nearly two years before the attacks in New York and Washington.
But U.S. officials told Knight Ridder on Monday that U.S. intelligence experts were highly skeptical that the Iraqi officer had any connection to al-Qaida.
On Sunday, John F. Lehman, a Republican member of the independent commission that's probing the attacks, cited the documents as "new intelligence" on Iraq's links with al-Qaida.
"We are in the process of getting this latest intelligence," Lehman said on NBC. "Some of these documents indicate that there is at least one officer of Saddam's Fedayeen, a lieutenant colonel, who was a very prominent member of al-Qaida. This still has to be confirmed."
The U.S. officials said the lieutenant colonel's name is different from that of the man who met the hijackers in Malaysia. The man who met the hijackers wasn't in Iraq at the time the documents were dated and he's never been implicated in the Sept. 11 plot by any top al-Qaida operatives in American custody.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the documents remain classified.
The officials said they were unsure why Lehman portrayed the documents as possible new intelligence on Iraq's links to al-Qaida. The documents have been cited by such staunch administration defenders as conservative author Stephen F. Hayes and The Wall Street Journal editorial page.
Lehman didn't return a telephone call to his office in New York. A spokesman for the commission said he couldn't answer questions about the intelligence Lehman cited Sunday.
Bush justified invading Iraq in part by alleging that Saddam aided al-Qaida and could have armed the terrorist network with biological or chemical weapons.
Lehman on Sunday apparently was referring to three rosters seized after last year's fall of Baghdad that listed members of the Fedayeen Saddam, a militia headed by Saddam's eldest son, Odai. The militia fought fierce guerrilla-style battles against invading American-led troops.
Two of the rosters identified a lieutenant colonel in the militia as Hikmat Shakir Ahmad, and the third identified an officer of the same rank as Hikmat Shakir, the U.S. officials said.
Some civilian officials in the Pentagon and other experts have suggested that the officer may have been the same person as Ahmad Hikmat Shakir, an Iraqi at the center of an unresolved subchapter of the Sept. 11 plot.
Ahmad Hikmat Shakir was employed with the aid of an Iraqi intelligence officer as a "greeter" or "facilitator" for Arabic-speaking visitors at the airport at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
In January 2000, he accompanied two Sept. 11 hijackers from the airport to a hotel where the pair met with Ramzi Binalshibh, a key planner of the attacks, and Tawfiz al Atash, who masterminded al-Qaida's strike on the USS Cole in October 2000.
There's no evidence that Ahmad Hikmat Shakir attended the meeting. Four days after it ended, he left Kuala Lumpur.
Several days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ahmad Hikmat Shakir was arrested in Qatar in possession of highly suspicious materials that appeared to link him with al-Qaida.
The Qataris inexplicably released him, and he flew to Amman, Jordan, where he was arrested again. The Jordanians freed him under pressure from Iraq and Amnesty International, and he went to Baghdad.
Some civilian Pentagon officials and other experts have cited Ahmad Hikmat Shakir as potential evidence of an Iraqi role in the Sept. 11 conspiracy, a possibility that grew with the discovery of the lieutenant colonel's name on the Fedayeen Saddam rosters.
But the U.S. officials who spoke to Knight Ridder on Monday said there were a number of reasons that intelligence analysts doubted that the officer was the same Iraqi who met the two Sept. 11 hijackers in Kuala Lumpur.
First, they said, the order in which the names were entered on the rosters was different from the name of the Iraqi who worked in Malaysia, indicating that the names didn't belong to the same person.
"It's very confusing, but it's not the same guy," one U.S. official said.
More importantly, the U.S. officials said, U.S. intelligence analysts have determined that on the dates marked on the rosters, the man who met the hijackers in Malaysia wasn't in Iraq. The officials declined to reveal the dates.
Finally, the Fedayeen Saddam was employed for security duties strictly in Iraq and wasn't involved in foreign operations, which were the responsibility of Iraqi intelligence, the U.S. officials said.
They said that while no conclusion had been reached on whether the Iraqi who met the hijackers in Malaysia was involved in the Sept. 11 plot, U.S. intelligence analysts were highly skeptical that he was. They said their view was based on the fact that no major al-Qaida operative in American custody, including Binalshibh, had implicated him in interrogations.
"It's quite possible he was just a greeter," a second U.S. official said.