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Pentagon Official Retracts Assertion of al-Qaida Involvement in Iraq - 2003-09-13

A top Defense Department official has recanted remarks claiming al-Qaida terrorists are actively operating in Iraq, collaborating with forces loyal to ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in a bid to kill Americans.

Before this year's war in Iraq, U.S. officials charged Saddam Hussein with harboring terrorists, including members of al-Qaida.

But since the war, military commanders have made little mention of Osama bin Laden's terrorist group and its alleged presence in Iraq.

Instead, they have blamed recent bombings and other attacks on unspecified "foreign fighters" and members of an al-Qaida affiliated Iraqi-based terror group, Ansar al-Islam.

But this week, in a series of interviews tied to the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said al-Qaida was actively involved in Iraq.

In one interview, with ABC's Good Morning America program, Mr. Wolfowitz suggested senior al-Qaida personnel, not just ordinary fighters, were involved in Iraq.

"We know a great many of Bin Laden's key lieutenants are now trying to organize in cooperation with old loyalists from the Saddam regime to attack in Iraq," he said.

Mr. Wolfowitz gave no details. And when asked about the new claims, Pentagon officials indicated at first that Mr. Wolfowitz was referring to sensitive new intelligence information. Intelligence officials contacted by VOA said they were unable to corroborate his comments.

Late Friday, Mr. Wolfowitz spoke to a reporter from the Associated Press and acknowledged he had misspoken. The bin Laden lieutenants he mentioned were in fact just one man, Abu Mussab Zarkawi, who was reported to have gone to Baghdad for medical treatment before the war.

As for the alleged al-Qaida fighters in Iraq, Mr. Wolfowitz indicated he was actually referring to unspecified foreign fighters and members of Ansar al-Islam, the Iraqi terrorist group linked to al-Qaida.

Defense officials declined comment when asked if they thought Mr. Wolfowitz had intentionally used interviews with national and international media to underscore the Bush administration's contention that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism.

The administration has been accused in the past of exaggerating claims about contacts between Saddam Hussein's regime and al-Qaida in a bid to justify U.S. military action against Iraq.