By THOM SHANKER
The New York Times
June 25, 2004
WASHINGTON, June 24 — Contacts between Iraqi intelligence agents and Osama bin Laden when he was in Sudan in the mid-1990's were part of a broad effort by Baghdad to work with organizations opposing the Saudi ruling family, according to a newly disclosed document obtained by the Americans in Iraq.
American officials described the document as an internal report by the Iraqi intelligence service detailing efforts to seek cooperation with several Saudi opposition groups, including Mr. bin Laden's organization, before Al Qaeda had become a full-fledged terrorist organization. He was based in Sudan from 1992 to 1996, when that country forced him to leave and he took refuge in Afghanistan.
The document states that Iraq agreed to rebroadcast anti-Saudi propaganda, and that a request from Mr. bin Laden to begin joint operations against foreign forces in Saudi Arabia went unanswered. There is no further indication of collaboration.
Last week, the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks addressed the known contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda, which have been cited by the White House as evidence of a close relationship between the two.
The commission concluded that the contacts had not demonstrated "a collaborative relationship" between Iraq and Al Qaeda. The Bush administration responded that there was considerable evidence of ties.
The new document, which appears to have circulated only since April, was provided to The New York Times several weeks ago, before the commission's report was released. Since obtaining the document, The Times has interviewed several military, intelligence and United States government officials in Washington and Baghdad to determine that the government considered it authentic.
The Americans confirmed that they had obtained the document from the Iraqi National Congress, as part of a trove that the group gathered after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government last year. The Defense Intelligence Agency paid the Iraqi National Congress for documents and other information until recently, when the group and its leader, Ahmad Chalabi, fell out of favor in Washington.
Some of the intelligence provided by the group is now wholly discredited, although officials have called some of the documents it helped to obtain useful.
A translation of the new Iraqi document was reviewed by a Pentagon working group in the spring, officials said. It included senior analysts from the military's Joint Staff, the Defense Intelligence Agency and a joint intelligence task force that specialized in counterterrorism issues, they said.
The task force concluded that the document "appeared authentic," and that it "corroborates and expands on previous reporting" about contacts between Iraqi intelligence and Mr. bin Laden in Sudan, according to the task force's analysis.
It is not known whether some on the task force held dissenting opinions about the document's veracity.
At the time of the contacts described in the Iraqi document, Mr. bin Laden was little known beyond the world of national security experts. It is now thought that his associates bombed a hotel in Yemen used by American troops bound for Somalia in 1992. Intelligence officials also believe he played a role in training Somali fighters who battled Army Rangers and Special Operations forces in Mogadishu during the "Black Hawk Down" battle of 1993.
Iraq during that period was struggling with its defeat by American-led forces in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, when American troops used Saudi Arabia as the base for expelling Iraqi invaders from Kuwait.
The document details a time before any of the spectacular anti-American terrorist strikes attributed to Al Qaeda: the two American Embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998, the strike on the destroyer Cole in Yemeni waters in 2000, and the Sept. 11 attacks.
The document, which asserts that Mr. bin Laden "was approached by our side," states that Mr. bin Laden previously "had some reservations about being labeled an Iraqi operative," but was now willing to meet in Sudan, and that "presidential approval" was granted to the Iraqi security service to proceed.
At the meeting, Mr. bin Laden requested that sermons of an anti-Saudi cleric be rebroadcast in Iraq. That request, the document states, was approved by Baghdad.
Mr. bin Laden "also requested joint operations against foreign forces" based in Saudi Arabia, where the American presence has been a rallying cry for Islamic militants who oppose American troops in the land of the Muslim pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina.
But the document contains no statement of response by the Iraqi leadership under Mr. Hussein to the request for joint operations, and there is no indication of discussions about attacks on the United States or the use of unconventional weapons.
The document is of interest to American officials as a detailed, if limited, snapshot of communications between Iraqi intelligence and Mr. bin Laden, but this view ends with Mr. bin Laden's departure from Sudan. At that point, Iraqi intelligence officers began "seeking other channels through which to handle the relationship, in light of his current location," the document states.
Members of the Pentagon task force that reviewed the document said it described no formal alliance being reached between Mr. bin Laden and Iraqi intelligence. The Iraqi document itself states that "cooperation between the two organizations should be allowed to develop freely through discussion and agreement."
The heated public debate over links between Mr. bin Laden and the Hussein government fall basically into three categories: the extent of communications and contacts between the two, the level of actual cooperation, and any specific collaboration in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The document provides evidence of communications between Mr. bin Laden and Iraqi intelligence, similar to that described in the Sept. 11 staff report released last week.
"Bin Laden also explored possible cooperation with Iraq during his time in Sudan, despite his opposition to Hussein's secular regime," the Sept. 11 commission report stated.
The Sudanese government, the commission report added, "arranged for contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda."
"A senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly made three visits to Sudan," it said, "finally meeting bin Laden in 1994. Bin Laden is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded."
The Sept. 11 commission statement said there were reports of further contacts with Iraqi intelligence in Afghanistan after Mr. bin Laden's departure from Sudan, "but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship," it added.
After the Sept. 11 commission released its staff reports last week, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney said they remained convinced that Mr. Hussein's government had a long history of ties to Al Qaeda.
"This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and Al Qaeda," Mr. Bush said. "We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. For example, Iraqi intelligence officers met with bin Laden, the head of Al Qaeda, in the Sudan. There's numerous contacts between the two."
It is not clear whether the commission knew of this document. After its report was released, Mr. Cheney said he might have been privy to more information than the commission had; it is not known whether any further information has changed hands.
A spokesman for the Sept. 11 commission declined to say whether it had seen the Iraqi document, saying its policy was not to discuss its sources.
The Iraqi document states that Mr. bin Laden's organization in Sudan was called "The Advice and Reform Commission." The Iraqis were cued to make their approach to Mr. bin Laden in 1994 after a Sudanese official visited Uday Hussein, the leader's son, as well as the director of Iraqi intelligence, and indicated that Mr. bin Laden was willing to meet in Sudan.
A former director of operations for Iraqi intelligence Directorate 4 met with Mr. bin Laden on Feb. 19, 1995, the document states.