WASHINGTON -- The Senate Intelligence Committee said yesterday that it had found no evidence that Saddam Hussein had ties to al-Qaida or provided a haven for one of its most notorious operatives, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- conclusions that contradict claims by the Bush administration before it invaded Iraq.
In a long-awaited report, the committee instead determined that the Iraqi dictator was wary of al-Qaida, repeatedly rebuffing requests from its leader, Osama bin Laden, for assistance, and that he sought to capture al-Zarqawi when the terrorist turned up in Baghdad.
The findings are the latest in a series of high-profile studies to refute some of the Bush administration's key arguments for invading Iraq, mainly that Hussein's regime possessed stockpiles of banned weapons and had ties to terrorist networks.
Presenting these since-discredited allegations as fact, President Bush and other officials argued that Hussein's regime posed an intolerable risk in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The 356-page report is certain to fuel the debate over the administration's foreign policy at a time when Bush is seeking to shore up support for the war in Iraq through speeches that cast the conflict as central to winning the war on terrorism.
Bush asserted again yesterday that the battle in Iraq is inextricably linked to al-Qaida, and he disparaged those who consider the conflict a "diversion" from the war on terror.
White House spokesman Tony Snow played down the significance of the report, describing it yesterday as "nothing new."
"It's, again, kind of re-litigating things that happened three years ago," Snow said. "In 2002 and 2003, members of both parties got a good look at the intelligence we had, and they came to the very same conclusions about what was going on."
The report said that "postwar findings indicate that Saddam Hussein was distrustful of al-Qaida and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from al-Qaida to provide material or operational support."
The report's disclosures include a classified assessment by the CIA last year that Hussein's regime "did not have a relationship, harbor, or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi and his associates."
The committee said U.S. intelligence agencies "accurately characterized" bin Laden's intermittent interest in pursuing assistance from Iraq but were largely wrong about Hussein's attitudes. The dictator, according to the report, was so wary of the terrorist network that he "issued a general order that Iraq should not deal with al-Qaida."
Democrats seized on the findings to accuse Bush of distorting the threat Iraq posed.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the chamber's Intelligence Committee, accused the White House of pursuing "a deceptive strategy of using intelligence reporting that the intelligence community had already warned was uncorroborated, unreliable and, in critical instances, fabricated."
The report is based largely on documents recovered from Iraqi facilities after the U.S. invasion in March 2003, as well as interrogations of Hussein and other Iraqi officials captured by coalition forces.
As a result, it represents the most thorough comparison to date of prewar suspicions with evidence subsequently collected. Much of the information was unavailable to U.S. intelligence agencies and policymakers before the war.
The report's publication was marked by intense political wrangling within the Republican-controlled intelligence committee, with two GOP members -- Sens. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska -- breaking ranks to vote in favor of conclusions drafted by Democrats.
In a statement, Snowe cited the "obligation of our government to learn from these horrific mistakes" and complained that the Intelligence Committee, "once noted for its bipartisanship, has become marred by partisan feuding." Hagel was not available for comment.
The dispute put Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who is the committee's chairman, in the awkward position of presenting the work of his panel while urging the public to ignore some of its conclusions.
"Overall, I am disappointed that some of my colleagues have twisted the facts to reach conclusions that support other agendas," he said. "It is my view that the public should not focus on the conclusions in this report, but rather on the underlying facts."
Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.