A US Senate report yesterday squashed any lingering concerns that Saddam Hussein might have had a hand in the September 11 attacks, concluding from evidence gathered before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq that Saddam had no relationship with al-Qa'ida and viewed the organisation as a threat to his regime.
Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which produced the bipartisan report, quickly seized on its findings to lambast the Bush administration for its repeated attempts to link the deposed Iraqi dictator with Osama bin Laden's radical Islamic network.
Carl Levin, a Democratic Senator from Michigan, called the report "a devastating indictment of the Bush-Cheney administration's unrelenting, misleading and deceptive attempts" to make such a link.
The White House spokesman Tony Snow responded simply by saying the report offered nothing new.
Over the past couple of years President Bush has acknowledged, with varying degrees of forthrightness, that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11.
In the run-up to the invasion, however, senior administration officials - notably Vice-President Dick Cheney - played up supposed links between Saddam and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qa'ida associate killed earlier this year, and suggested Iraqi intelligence agents had met the 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta in Prague shortly before the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centre.
The Senate committee report found no credible evidence of any contact between al-Qa'ida and the Iraqi government other than a 1995 meeting between an Iraqi intelligence officer and Bin Laden in Sudan, at which nothing was offered or promised.
It found evidence of at least two occasions, meanwhile, when Saddam specifically rebuffed overtures from al-Qa'ida.
"Post-war findings indicate that Saddam Hussein was distrustful of al-Qa'ida and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from al-Qa'ida for material or operational support," it concluded.
The report confirmed that Zarqawi was in Baghdad between May and November 2002 - a fact much played up by Mr Cheney in the invasion's immediate aftermath - but said he was very far from welcome there. Instead, Saddam attempted, unsuccessfully, to track him down and capture him. Until the US invasion, Zarqawi was affiliated with Ansar al-Islam, a radical group in Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Iraq and unconnected to Saddam.
The report sifted through much of the pre-war intelligence on Iraq and al-Qa'ida as well as post-war findings, and found scant evidence even there - despite what it called the "forward-leaning" analysis of the CIA and other agencies who were "purposely aggressive" in their efforts to find any links and play them up.
Over and above its significance in tracing the US path to war in Iraq, the report is also likely to become fodder for the mid-term election campaign, now in full swing. The intelligence committee's senior Democrat, John Rockefeller of West Virginia, accused the Bush administration of playing on popular fear in the wake of 9/11 to justify America's invasion of Iraq.
His Republican counterpart, Pat Roberts of Kansas, preferred to characterise the path to war as "a tragic intelligence failure" and said attacks by Democrats were "little more than a vehicle to advance election-year political charges".
The report was the Senate intelligence committee's second look at the run-up to the Iraq war. The first, issued more than two years ago, looked at the CIA's failings in assessing Iraq's - ultimately non-existent - weapons of mass destruction.
Publication of the second report has been held up repeatedly by arguments over how much of it to keep classified and how much to make public.
National security and the so-called war on terror was a big factor in President Bush's re-election in 2004. His loss of credibility in Iraq may sink his Republican Party in the congressional elections on 7 November.Reuse content