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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Al Qaeda Link to Iraqi Militia Doubted

U.S. intelligence official disputes a claim that a terror operative served in Fedayeen Saddam.

June 22, 2004|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A U.S. intelligence official expressed skepticism Monday that a member of Al Qaeda had served as an officer in Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen militia, contradicting a claim made the day before by a member of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

The intelligence official said the CIA had investigated the matter this year after documents recovered in Iraq listed an officer in the Fedayeen Saddam militia whose name was similar to that of a known Al Qaeda operative.

The agency determined that the militia member and the terrorist operative were not the same person, the official said. "We think that it is not the same guy," said the intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The CIA's conclusion undercuts an assertion made by John F. Lehman, a Republican member of the Sept. 11 commission, who said in a television interview Sunday that new intelligence indicated that "there is at least one officer of Saddam's Fedayeen, a lieutenant colonel, who was a very prominent member of Al Qaeda."

Lehman made the comment on NBC's "Meet the Press." He could not be reached for comment late Monday.

Lehman's claim has become the latest point of friction in the ongoing debate over the extent of Al Qaeda's ties to the former Iraqi government. The Bush administration frequently cited Iraq's alleged ties to Al Qaeda while building the case for war.

The Sept. 11 commission issued a staff report last week concluding that although there were contacts between Hussein's regime and Al Qaeda during the 1990s, there was no evidence that there was a collaborative relationship between Baghdad and the terrorist network responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

The report prompted fresh questions about the credibility of the administration's prewar claims, and the White House has staunchly refused to retreat. After the commission's report was released, Vice President Dick Cheney said "the evidence is overwhelming" that the Iraqi government had a relationship with Al Qaeda and suggested that the commission had not seen all the available information.

Lehman sought to defend Cheney and others during his NBC appearance Sunday, and he cited the claim that an Al Qaeda member was part of the Fedayeen militia as an example of how the intelligence community's understanding of the ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq was still evolving.

"There's new intelligence, and this has come since our staff report has been written," Lehman said. "New intelligence is coming in steadily from the interrogations in Guantanamo and Iraq, and from captured documents."

The U.S. military operates a prison at its naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The intelligence official said Lehman appeared to be referring to documents that included rosters of the Fedayeen Saddam. The militia melted away after the fall of Baghdad, but many believe that its former members continue to lead insurgent attacks on American forces.

One name on the list closely resembled that of Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi, an Iraqi who escorted two Sept. 11 hijackers to a high-level Al Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000.

A CIA investigation this year "concluded that the individuals listed in captured Iraqi documents as members of the Fedayeen are not the same as the Iraqi who facilitated the arrival of a Sept. 11 hijacker in Kuala Lumpur," the U.S. intelligence official said.

He noted that "names such as Ahmad, Hikmat and Shakir are pretty common in Arabic" and that the order in which they appear on the roster differs from the name of the Al Qaeda figure. The official said he could not provide any more information.

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