A report by a Senate committee says there is no evidence former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had any relationship with the al-Qaida terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or his associates before the U.S. and allied forces invaded Iraq in 2003.
The report is part of an ongoing investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been looking into intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq, it was widely thought at the time to eliminate weapons of mass destruction.
According to the 400 page document, an assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 2005 stated that before U.S. and allied forces invaded, the Saddam Hussein regime did not, in the words of the report, have a relationship, harbor, or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi and his associates.
President Bush and other administration officials have acknowledged that no evidence has emerged to show a direct link between Saddam and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
However, the president, along with Vice President Dick Cheney and other key officials have maintained that Zarqawi's presence in Iraq before the war constituted proof of an al-Qaida connection.
At a news conference Friday, Senate Democrats asserted the report proves that the Bush administration sought to exploit the fears Americans had in the wake of the 2001 al-Qaida attacks in New York and Washington to justify military action in Iraq.
On the basis of the report, Senator John Rockefeller, the committee's ranking Democrat, says the administration's case for war in Iraq was, in his words, fundamentally misleading.
"Most disturbingly the administration in its zeal to promote public opinion in the U.S. for toppling Saddam Hussein pursued a deceptive strategy prior to the war," he said.
The Senate Intelligence Committee investigation has sparked intense partisan battles on Capitol Hill, with Democrats charging Senate Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman, with deliberately slowing down the probe.
Senator Roberts has strongly denied these allegations. Statements by committee Democrats, he said in a written statement Friday, are little more than a rehashing of the same unfounded allegations they've used for over three years.
White House spokesman Tony Snow took the same approach, repeating the argument that Democrats had access to the same intelligence the Bush administration had prior to military action in 2003.
But Senator Carl Levin says what he calls unrelenting, misleading and deceptive attempts to convince Americans of the existence of links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida had far-reaching effects.
"And to make repeated public statements that gave the misleading impression that Saddam Hussein's regime was connected to the terrorists who attacked us on September 11 cost him [President Bush] any credibility that he may have had on this issue," he said,
The release of the second part of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report comes just days before Americans observe the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
In its final report on intelligence and other failures leading to the 2001 attacks, the independent 9/11 Commission also found that there had been no collaborative relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.