A declassified report released Friday by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence revealed that U.S. intelligence analysts were strongly...

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WASHINGTON — A declassified report released Friday by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence revealed that U.S. intelligence analysts were strongly disputing the alleged links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida while senior Bush administration officials were publicly asserting those links to justify invading Iraq.

Far from aligning himself with al-Qaida and Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Saddam repeatedly rebuffed al-Qaida’s overtures and tried to capture al-Zarqawi, the report said.

Tariq Aziz, the detained former deputy prime minister, told the FBI that Saddam “only expressed negative sentiments about [al-Qaida leader Osama] bin Laden.”

The report also said exiles from the Iraqi National Congress (INC) tried to influence U.S. policy by providing, through defectors, false information on Iraq’s nuclear-, chemical- and biological-weapons capabilities. Even though analysts warned that the group had been penetrated by hostile intelligence services, including Iran’s, a 2002 White House directive ordered that U.S. funding for the INC be continued.

The newly declassified intelligence report provided administration critics with fresh ammunition less than two months before midterm elections and in the middle of President Bush’s campaign to refocus the public’s attention away from Iraq and toward the threat of terrorism.

Senior Senate Democrats seized on the findings, using some of their strongest language yet to say the president continues to willfully and falsely connect Saddam to al-Qaida.

As recently as Aug. 21, Bush suggested a link between Saddam and al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, who was killed by U.S. forces in June. But a CIA assessment in October 2005 concluded that Saddam’s government “did not have a relationship, harbor, or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi and his associates,” according to the report.

Some new findings

Some disclosures from captured Iraqis in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report:

Saddam Hussein did not trust al-Qaida or any other radical Islamist group and did not want to cooperate with them; however, he thought al-Qaida was an effective organization.

When told there was evidence the Iraqi government had met with Osama bin Laden, Saddam responded, “Yes,” according to an FBI summary of his statements. “Saddam then specified that Iraq did not cooperate with bin Laden.”

Saddam’s deputy, Tariq Aziz, told the FBI that Saddam expressed only negative sentiments about bin Laden and that when the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan, Iraq declined to open an embassy in Kabul.

Abid Hamid Mahmoud al-Kattab al-Tikriti, a top official in Saddam’s government, told the FBI that “Saddam’s position was that Iraq should not deal with al-Qaida.”

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“The president is still distorting. He’s still making statements which are false,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., an intelligence committee member.

The partial release of the report came after nearly three years of partisan wrangling over what is to be a five-chapter analysis of the use of prewar intelligence in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The heart of the report — a detailed comparison of administration statements with the intelligence then available — is still far from release.

But the committee voted Thursday to release two chapters, one on the role that Iraqi exiles played in shaping prewar intelligence, the other on the accuracy of the prewar analyses of Saddam’s nuclear-, chemical- and biological-weapons capabilities and his suspected links to al-Qaida and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

White House spokesman Tony Snow dismissed the findings as old news. “If we have people who want to re-litigate that, that’s fine,” he said.

But Republican attempts to paint the findings as a partisan rehash were undercut by intelligence committee members from the GOP.

The committee report’s conclusions are based on the Democrats’ findings because two Republicans — Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska — supported those findings.

“After reviewing thousands of pages of evidence, I voted for the conclusions that most closely reflect the facts in the report,” Snowe said. “Policy-makers seemingly discounted or dismissed warnings about the veracity of critical intelligence reports that may have served as a basis for going to war.”

Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was emphatic this week that Iraqi exiles did not fundamentally shape the critical assessment of the Iraqi threat in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate.

But, as Snowe emphasized, the report concluded that information provided by an INC source was cited in that estimate and in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 2003 speech to the United Nations as corroborating evidence about Iraq’s mobile biological-weapons program.

Those citations came despite two April 2002 CIA assessments, a May 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency fabrication notice and a July 2002 National Intelligence Council warning saying the INC source may have been coached by the exile group into fabricating the information.

Democrats and Republicans agree that analysts and politicians of all political stripes were wrong about the prewar assessments of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.

But the committee report indicates that intelligence analysts were substantially right about Saddam’s lack of operational links to al-Qaida.

Democrats compared the administration’s public statements with newly declassified intelligence assessments to build their case that efforts to link Iraq to al-Qaida were willfully misleading.

In a classified January 2003 report, for instance, the CIA concluded Saddam “viewed Islamic extremists operating inside Iraq as a threat.”

But one day after that conclusion was published, Levin noted, Vice President Dick Cheney said the Iraqi government “aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaida.”

Intelligence reports in June, July and September 2002 all cast doubts on a reported meeting in Prague, the Czech Republic, between Iraqi intelligence agents and Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta.

Yet, in a Sept. 8, 2002, appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Cheney said the CIA considered the reports on the meeting credible, Levin said.

In February 2002, the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that “Iraq is unlikely to have provided bin Laden any useful [chemical and biological weapons] knowledge or assistance.”

A year later, Bush said, “Iraq has also provided al-Qaida with chemical and biological weapons training.”

Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., an intelligence committee member, said it was unfair for Democrats to compare the intelligence assessments in the report to the administration’s statements. He said such comparisons go beyond the scope of the chapters released.

But Democrats were unequivocal in asserting that the chapters chronicle an indisputable pattern of deception.

“It is such a blatant misleading of the United States, its people, to prepare them, to position them, to, in fact, make them enthusiastic or feel that it’s justified to go to war with Iraq,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the committee’s vice chairman. “That kind of public manipulation I don’t know has any precedent in American history.”

Washington Post staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.