WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee on Friday said it had found no evidence that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda or provided safe harbor to one of its most notorious operatives, Abu Musab Zarqawi -- conclusions contradicting claims by the Bush administration before it invaded Iraq.
In a long-awaited report, the committee instead determined that the former Iraqi dictator was wary of Al Qaeda; repeatedly rebuffed requests from its leader, Osama bin Laden, for assistance; and sought to capture Zarqawi when the terrorist turned up in Baghdad.
The findings are the latest in a series of high-profile studies to dispute some of the Bush administration's key arguments for invading Iraq -- mainly that the Hussein regime possessed stockpiles of banned weapons and had cultivated ties to terrorist networks. Presenting these since-discredited allegations as fact, President Bush and other high-ranking officials argued that Hussein's government posed an intolerable risk in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The 356-page report is certain to fuel the election-season debate over the administration's foreign policy at a time when Bush is seeking to shore up support for the war in Iraq through a series of speeches that cast the conflict as central to winning the larger war on terrorism.
Bush on Thursday again asserted that the battle in Iraq was inextricably linked to Al Qaeda, and disparaged those who considered it a "diversion" from the war on terrorism.
White House spokesman Tony Snow on Friday downplayed the significance of the report, describing it as "nothing new."
"It's ... kind of relitigating 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."
In one of its main conclusions, the report said that "postwar findings indicate that Saddam Hussein was distrustful of Al Qaeda and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from Al Qaeda to provide material or operational support."
According to the report, Hussein has told U.S. interrogators that "if he wanted to cooperate with the enemies of the U.S., he would have allied with North Korea or China." His former deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, told U.S. interrogators that "Saddam only expressed negative sentiments about Bin Laden."
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, made up of eight Republicans and seven Democrats, said U.S. intelligence agencies before Sept. 11 "accurately characterized" Bin Laden's intermittent interest in pursuing assistance from Iraq, but were largely wrong about Hussein's attitudes.
The Iraqi leader, according to the report, was so wary of the terrorist network that he "issued a general order that Iraq should not deal with Al Qaeda."
Democrats seized on the findings Friday to accuse the Bush administration of having distorted the threat Iraq posed.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, ranking Democrat on the 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 released Friday is based largely on documents recovered from Iraqi facilities in the aftermath of 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 panel, "once noted for its bipartisanship, has become marred by partisan feuding." Hagel was not available for comment.
The dispute put Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the committee's chairman, in the awkward position of touting 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," Roberts said. "It is my view that the public should not focus on the conclusions in this report, but rather on the underlying facts."