WASHINGTON - The Pentagon on Wednesday canceled plans for broad public release of a study that found no pre-Iraq war link between late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the al Qaida terrorist network.
Rather than posting the report online and making officials available to discuss it, as had been planned, the U.S. Joint Forces Command said it would mail copies of the document to reporters - if they asked for it. The report won't be posted on the Internet.
The reversal highlighted the politically sensitive nature of its conclusions, which were first reported Monday by McClatchy.
In making their case for invading Iraq in 2002 and 2003, President Bush and his top national security aides claimed that Saddam's regime had ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaida terrorist network.
But the study, based on more than 600,000 captured documents, including audio and video files, found that while Saddam sponsored terrorism, particularly against opponents of his regime and against Israel, there was no evidence of an al Qaida link.
The study comes at a difficult time for the Bush administration. The fifth anniversary of the Iraq war is approaching on March 19, and Bush is attempting to hold support for a continued large U.S. troop presence there following a report from his on-the-ground commander, Army Gen. David Petraeus, in early April.
Navy Capt. Dennis Moynihan, a spokesman for the Norfolk, Va.-based Joint Forces Command, said, "We're making the report available to anyone who wishes to have it, and we'll send it out via CD in the mail."
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Moynihan declined further comment.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, referred questions to Joint Forces Command.
An executive summary of the study says that Saddam's regime had interaction with terrorist groups, including Palestinian terror organizations and some pan-Islamic groups.
But "the predominant targets of Iraqi state terror operations were Iraqi citizens, both inside and outside of Iraq," says the summary, posted online by ABC News.
That confirms what many experts on Saddam's Iraq have long argued: that his security services were dedicated mainly to fighting threats to his rule.
The summary says that Saddam's secular regime increased cooperation with - and attempts to manipulate - Islamic fundamentalists after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, despite being leery of the Islamists. Iraqi leaders "concluded that in some cases, the benefits of associations outweighed the risks," it says.
Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report.
© 2008 McClatchy Newspapers