WASHINGTON — A deputy prime minister of Iraq yesterday offered a sharp contradiction of the conventional wisdom here that Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Al Qaeda had no connection before the 2003 war, flatly contradicting a recent report from the Senate's intelligence committee.
In a speech in which he challenged the belief of war critics that Iraqis' lives are now worse than under Saddam Hussein, Barham Salih said, "The alliance between the Baathists and jihadists which sustains Al Qaeda in Iraq is not new, contrary to what you may have been told." He went on to say, "I know this at first hand. Some of my friends were murdered by jihadists, by Al Qaeda-affiliated operatives who had been sheltered and assisted by Saddam's regime."
A Kurdish politician who took his high school exams from inside a Baathist prison, Mr. Salih said he was the target of the alliance between jihadists, Baathists, and Al Qaeda in 2001, when a group known as Ansar al-Islam tried to assassinate him. In 2002, envoys of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two Kurdish parties sharing sovereignty over northern Iraq between the two Iraq wars, presented the CIA with evidence that the organization that tried to kill Mr. Salih had been in part funded and directed by Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard.
Those words directly contradict a recent report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that declassified a 2005 CIA assessment of Iraq's pre-war ties to Al Qaeda and found that none existed. In an interview after the speech yesterday, Mr. Salih said he was unaware of the CIA assessment. But he added, "There were links between Ansar al-Islam and Al Qaeda. The information at time [in 2002] was quite different. Now, we could not prove this in a court of law, but this is intelligence."
The Senate's report declassifies a July 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency study of Ansar al-Islam as a possible link between Saddam's Iraq and Al Qaeda that concludes that, even if it can be proven, as Mr. Salih at the time alleged, that the Baathist regime supported the group, "it will not necessarily implicate the regime in supporting Al Qaeda." The DIA concludes that Ansar al-Islam "receives assistance" from Al Qaeda but is not a branch of the terrorist organization.
Democrats in the last three days have used the Senate report as a stick with which to beat the White House. On Tuesday, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Jane Harman of California, wrote a letter to Vice President Cheney urging him to rescind his remarks on NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday when he said he did not know whether an accused September 11 hijacker, Mohammed Atta, met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Prague. On that program, Mr. Cheney dismissed the Senate committee's report and said he had not read it.
On Tuesday and yesterday, the Senate Democratic leader's communications office sent out press releases accusing White House press secretary Tony Snow of misleading the public on Iraq when he insisted the president asserted that no a relationship between Al Qaeda and Iraq existed before the war. The Senate committee's report quotes the 2005 CIA report as saying Saddam Hussein did not know that the former commander of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, was in his country before the war.
Clinging to the assessments of the intelligence agencies, the Democrats have used the finding to make the broader point that the Iraq war is in no way related to the war on terrorism. Rep. Ike Skelton, a senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee from Missouri, yesterday issued a statement saying, "Our country is engaged in two separate wars. The first is the war against terrorism, which has its genesis in Afghanistan."
He went on to say, "The second war, in Iraq, originated because of the alleged threat of weapons of mass destruction against America and our interests. This was a war of choice." The two war theme was repeated by President Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in a speech on new directions for American foreign policy.
But Mr. Salih at the Brookings Institution yesterday rebutted this point. "The terrorism that we are facing is therefore not an aberration caused by the liberation of Iraq. It is not an expression of a legitimate grievance. It is the failure of the political culture that is the rotted offspring of the old order, the results of decades of inequality, intolerance, injustice, and officially-sponsored fanaticism," he said. A few breaths later, Mr. Salih said, "We are your allies in the global war against Al Qaeda."
Mr. Salih, who was in Iran last week on official business for Iraq, also said that he had "candid" conversations with Iranian officials and had raised the issue of improvised explosive devices from Iran getting into the hands of Iraqi insurgents.