With 9/11 Report, Bush's Political Thorn Grows More Stubborn

By RICHARD W. STEVENSON

The New York Times

Published: June 17, 2004

WASHINGTON, June 16 - The bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks further called into question on Wednesday one of President Bush's rationales for the war with Iraq, and again put him on the defensive over an issue the White House was once confident would be a political plus.

In questioning the extent of any ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, the commission weakened the already spotty scorecard on Mr. Bush's justifications for sending the military to topple Saddam Hussein.

Banned biological and chemical weapons: none yet found. Percentage of Iraqis who view American-led forces as liberators: 2, according to a poll commissioned last month by the Coalition Provisional Authority. Number of possible Al Qaeda associates known to have been in Iraq in recent years: one, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose links to the terrorist group and Mr. Hussein's government rema in sketchy.

That is the difficult reality Mr. Bush faces 15 months after ordering the invasion of Iraq, and less than five months before he faces the voters at home. The commission's latest findings fueled fresh partisan attacks on his credibility and handling of the war, attacks that now seem unlikely to be silenced even if the return of sovereignty to the Iraqis comes off successfully in two weeks.

Senator John Kerry, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, was quick to seize on the commission's report to reprise his contention that Mr. Bush "misled" the American people about the need for the war. Even some independent-minded members of Mr. Bush's own party said they sensed danger.

"The problem the administration has is that the predicates it laid down for the war have not played out," said Warren B. Rudman, the former Republican senator from New Hampshire, who h as extensive experience in assessing intelligence about terrorism. "That could spell political trouble for the president, there's no question."

Mr. Bush has said that he knows of no direct involvement by Mr. Hussein and his government in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But the president has repeatedly asserted that there were ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, a position he stuck to on Tuesday when he was asked about Vice President Dick Cheney's statement a day earlier that Mr. Hussein had "long-established ties with Al Qaeda."

Mr. Bush pointed specifically on Tuesday to the presence in Iraq of Mr. Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadist who sought help from Al Qaeda in waging the anti-American insurgency after the fall of Mr. Hussein, and who has been implicated by American intelligence officials in the killing of Nicholas Berg, the 26-year-old American who was beheaded by militants in Iraq in March.

The White House said Wednesday that there was a distinction between Mr. Bush's position and the commission's determination that Iraq did not cooperate with Al Qaeda on attacks on the United States.

The commission's report did not specifically address that distinction or Mr. Zarqawi's role. It found that an Iraqi intelligence officer met with Osama bin Laden in Sudan in 1994, but that Iraq never responded to Mr. bin Laden's subsequent request for space to set up training camps and help in buying weapons. It said there were reports of later contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda, but "they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship."

It quoted two senior associates of Mr. bin Laden denying adamantly "that any ties existed between Al Qaeda and Iraq." It concluded that there never was a meeting in Prague between an Iraqi intelligence officer and Mohammed Atta, the leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers; in an interview with National Public Radio in January, Mr. Cheney cited intelligence reports about the possibility of such a meeting in asserting that there was not c onfirmation "one way or another" about links between Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks.

Democratic strategists said there was now no question that Mr. Bush would be dogged through the rest of the campaign by questions about whether the war was necessary, justified and sufficiently well planned. But Mr. Bush's supporters said that in political terms, the amazing thing was how well he had weathered the problems thrown at him by Iraq.