The liberation of Iraq removed... an ally of al-Qa'ida
- President George Bush,
1 May 2003
There's overwhelming evidence... of a connection between al-Qa'ida and Iraq
- Vice-President Cheney,
22 January 2004
Within a week, or a month, Saddam could give his WMD to al-Qa'ida
- Donald Rumsfeld,
14 November 2002
Saddam was a danger in the region where the 9/11 threat emerged
- Condoleezza Rice,
17 September 2003
The Bush administration's credibility was dealt a devastating blow yesterday when the commission investigating the attacks of 11 September said there was no credible evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime had assisted al-Qa'ida - something repeatedly suggested by the President and his senior officials and held up as a reason for the invasion of Iraq.
A report by the independent commission said while there were contacts between Iraq and al-Qa'ida operatives in the 1990s, it appeared Osama bin Laden's requests for a partnership were rebuffed. "We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qa'ida co-operated on attacks against the United States," the commission said. It also discounted widespread claims that Mohamed Atta, the hijackers' ringleader, met an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague.
The report forced the Bush administration on to the defensive, as it appeared to undermine one of its key justifications for the invasion of Iraq.
While Mr Bush has been forced to admit there was no specific evidence to link Saddam to 11 September, his deputy, Dick Cheney, claimed on Monday that the former Iraqi leader was "a patron of terrorism [with] long-established ties with al-Qa'ida''.
Last autumn Mr Cheney referred to the disputed meeting between Atta and an Iraqi official in the Czech Republic.
Critics of the White House say there was a deliberate policy to manipulate public opinion and create an association between Saddam and the attacks on New York and Washington. If true, such a plan has certainly been successful: a poll taken last September by the Washington Post newspaper found 69 per cent of Americans believed that Saddam was involved in the 11 September attacks.
The Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry seized on the commission's report last night. "The administration misled America and the administration reached too far," he told Michigan National Public Radio.
The commission's report - issued at the start of its final two days of public hearings into the circumstances surrounding the attacks - confirmed that in the early Nineties al-Qa'ida and Saddam's regime had made overtures to each other.
In 1994, for instance, Saddam had dispatched a senior intelligence official to Sudan to meet Bin Laden, making three visits before he finally met the al-Qa'ida leader.
Bin Laden requested help to procure weapons and establish training camps but Iraq did not respond, the report said. There were also reports of contact with Bin Laden once he moved to Afghanistan in 1996 but these "do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship". It added: "Two senior Bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al-Qa'ida and Iraq." The commission's report also revealed that the initial plan for the attack on the US - drawn up by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a senior al-Qa'ida operative who is now in US custody - envisioned a much broader assault, simultaneously targeting 10 different US cities on both the east and west coasts.
That expanded target list included the FBI headquarters in the plot was to have been the 10th plane - on which he which personally have flown. Rather than attacking a building, Mohammed would have killed all of the male passengers on board, before contacting media and landing at an airport where he would have released women and children. He then was to make a speech denouncing the US. That ambitious plan was rejected by Bin Laden, who gave his approval to a scaled-back mission involving four planes and costing as little as between $4-500,000. Mohammed had wanted to use more hijackers for those planes - 25 or 26, instead of 19. It said at least 10 other al-Qa'ida operatives who were initially due to participate in the attacks had been identified. They did not take part in the mission for a variety of reasons including visa problems and suspicions by airport officials in the US.
The report also revealed that the plot was riven by internal dissent, including over whether to target the White House or the Capitol building that were apparently not resolved prior to the attacks. Bin Laden also had to overcome opposition to attacking the US from Mullah Omar, leader of the former Taliban regime, who was under pressure from Pakistan to keep al-Qa'ida confined.
The commission confirmed that al-Qa'ida, though drastically changed and decentralized since 9-11, retained regional networks that were seeking to attack the US.
"Al-Qa'ida remains extremely interested in conducting chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attacks," said the report. It said that its ability to conduct an anthrax attack is one of the most immediate threats. The network may also try to attack a chemical plant or shipment of hazardous materials, or to use industrial chemicals as a weapon.
The report said the CIA estimated the network spent $30m a year before September 11 on training camps and terrorist operations. The money was also used to support the Taliban.
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd