WASHINGTON — While President Bush's top advisers debate whether to target Iraq for devastating bombardment as part of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, U.S. officials and terrorism experts say there is little evidence Saddam Hussein's regime played a role in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The issue of who - if anyone - helped suspect Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network plan and execute the Sept. 11 terrorist tragedy has taken on new urgency as Bush decides how and where to retaliate with a growing military arsenal being deployed overseas.
In the hours after the attacks, U.S. intelligence obtained congratulatory messages from bin Laden operatives that seemed to confirm the Afghan-based Saudi exile's culpability. Members of groups allied with al-Qaida, such as the Egyptian Jihad organization and the Algeria-based Armed Islamic Group, may have played a role, too, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But because of the size and elaborate planning of last week's events, suspicions have persisted that bin Laden had a sponsoring nation, such as Iraq.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said that "little bits and pieces of information" are being pursued that suggest links between foreign governments and the terrorists who hijacked four commercial jetliners. But there is no hard evidence, said the official, who requested anonymity.
The CIA and other intelligence agencies have declined to disclose many specifics of what they know about who's behind the attacks because they do not want to give away anything that would endanger their sources.
Among the hints of a link to Iraq is a meeting between Mohammed Atta, a hijacker aboard one of the two planes that hit the World Trade Center towers, and an Iraqi intelligence agent in Europe last year. While interesting, it is hardly evidence that Iraq was behind the attacks, the official said.
Bin Laden himself met with Iraqi intelligence agents in Afghanistan shortly after he fled there from Sudan in 1996, another official said Friday, confirming a report in the Wall Street Journal.
Al-Qaida and the Iraqi government reached an understanding "that al-Qaida would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al-Qaida would work cooperatively with the government of Iraq," according to the 1998 indictment of bin Laden associates for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Yet beyond their shared hatred for the United States, the Islamic extremist bin Laden and Saddam's secular state have little in common.
"I have never seen any evidence that Iraq is heavily involved in al-Qaida," said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service, an arm of the Library of Congress.
Bin Laden's network is made up of so-called "Afghan Arabs" who went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union's occupation during the 1980s. Few Iraqis went because Iraq was consumed by its war with Iran, Katzman said. "If you're not in that milieu, you're not in al-Qaida," he said.
The first suggestions that Iraq was behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon surfaced in reports attributed to Israel's intelligence services. One of the reports contained a factual error that raised doubts about its veracity.
Israel has long viewed Iraq as its most fearsome Arab opponent because of Baghdad's huge conventional army and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs.
Proponents of Iraq complicity also cite the theory that Saddam Hussein was behind the first attempt to topple the World Trade Center, in a 1993 bombing.
Last week's attack "was the biggest terrorist event in history. It takes a state to carry off something" of that magnitude, said Laurie Mylroie, author of a book last year that argued that the 1993 bombing was Saddam's revenge for his defeat in the Gulf War. "The only state that comes to mind is Iraq."
But Mylroie acknowledged she has no "evidence as understood in the legal sense" for Iraqi complicity.
The civilian Pentagon officials arguing for Iraq to be included in the targets for U.S. retaliation include Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and senior adviser Richard Perle.
Others within the administration, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, have strongly objected to military operations against Islamic countries other than Afghanistan. A broader attack would shatter the international coalition backing U.S. anti-terrorism efforts, they argue.
Yet Gary Richter of the Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratories, who has written classified reports on bin Laden for the U.S. government, said there were governments besides Afghanistan and Sudan, where he lived until 1996, who share culpability.
"When the administration looks around for who's to blame for this guy being who he is," it will find plenty of countries that provided support, Richter said. He declined to be specific.
Powell appears to have won the argument for now, said a Senate aide, who requested anonymity.
But Bush, in his speech Thursday to Congress, kept his options open. "Any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime," he declared.