WASHINGTON (AP) – The Bush administration has evidence of some prewar Iraqi contacts and training with al-Qaida, based on prisoner interrogations, defector statements and documents collected in Iraq and Afghanistan, but no proof of joint terror operations, according to U.S. officials.

Most of the administration’s public assertions have focused on a supporter of Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He is believed to have run terrorist training camps in both Iraq and Afghanistan and received medical care in Baghdad.

U.S. officials have accused al-Zarqawi of trying to train terrorists in the use of poison for possible attacks in Europe, running a terrorist haven in northern Iraq and organizing an attack that killed an American aid executive in Jordan last year.

But U.S. officials familiar with intelligence say the administration has evidence of other contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida. These contacts spiked in 1995-96, when bin Laden was living in Sudan, which he left for Afghanistan in early 1996; and in 1998, while his terror network was in Afghanistan, and his operatives bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa.

The officials, all of whom spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said there was credible evidence of more than a half-dozen high-level contacts between Iraqi intelligence agencies and leaders of bin Laden’s organization but no direct evidence of Iraqi government sponsorship of al-Qaida attacks.

“There is nothing yet that remotely resembles state sponsorship by Iraq,” one recently retired intelligence officer said.

With the administration’s credibility tarnished by an earlier false claim of Iraqi uranium purchases, U.S. intelligence has been reluctant to stretch any raw information on the al-Qaida connection.

Some Democratic presidential candidates have begun to challenge the connection.

Nearly a dozen current and former senior U.S. officials told the AP that the strongest account of collaboration between Iraqis and al-Qaida comes from the captured leader of one of al-Qaida’s Afghan training camps. He claimed that bin Laden turned to Iraq for technical help on chemical weapons because bin Laden was concerned that al-Qaida lacked the expertise.

The captive has told interrogators that an al-Qaida militant known as Abdallah al-Iraqi shuttled between Afghanistan and Iraq from 1997 and 2002 looking to acquire poisons, officials said.

The captive also claims two al-Qaida associates were offered training by Saddam’s government in chemical and biological poisons starting in late 2000, officials said.

Current and former U.S. officials said whatever the intelligence ultimately concludes about the prewar contacts between Iraq and bin Laden, there is little doubt that Saddam’s fall this spring has opened the door for al-Qaida to operate more overtly inside Iraq, as evidenced by a recent wave of attacks on U.S. soldiers.

“The U.S. attack on Iraq has now made a terrorist connection a self-fulfilling prophecy. We really found the one formula that maximizes al-Qaida’s chances of increasing their operations in Iraq,” said Greg Thielmann, who retired last year as the State Department’s top expert on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

The Clinton administration detected the first significant contacts in 1996, when Iraqi intelligence agents went to Sudan and talked about chemical weapons with several terrorists staying in the African nation.

“The Iraqi chemical corps was sent to Sudan to maintain relationships with the terrorists and to share knowledge about poisons,” one source familiar with the intelligence said. “We are confident they were in contact with al-Qaida at that time.”

A friendly foreign intelligence agency has told the United States that bin Laden himself met with an Iraqi agent in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1996 and subsequently met one of the heads of Iraqi intelligence, officials said.

One al-Qaida captive has told U.S. interrogators that Sudanese contacts between Iraqi intelligence and al-Qaida resulted in an informal agreement between Saddam and bin Laden that there would be no attacks inside Iraq, officials have said.

Before that time, the two U.S. enemies viewed themselves as rivals because Iraq’s secular brand of Islam conflicted with bin Laden’s more extreme followers.

The FBI first received information of possible Iraqi complicity with the emerging al-Qaida network in 1995 after capturing Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, according to FBI interview documents reviewed by the AP.

Yousef told his interrogators he entered the United States to organize the attack in late 1992, almost two years after the Persian Gulf War ended, using an Iraqi passport and requesting political asylum. Yousef said he bought the passport in Pakistan from people he called “Iraqi rebels,” the reports state.

U.S. officials said contacts between Iraqi intelligence agents and bin Laden supporters appeared to pick up in 1998.

One source said the assessment of some intelligence experts as late as 2002 was that Iraqi intelligence agents were making overtures to al-Qaida more to keep track of the group than to collaborate on attacks.

But one al-Qaida detainee in U.S. custody in Cuba has told his interrogators that Saddam was more willing to help al-Qaida after the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa and again after being impressed by al-Qaida’s 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the Yemen port of Aden, according to several officials.

Another factor, officials said, was the merger in 1998 between bin Laden and Egyptian terror chief Ayman al-Zawarhi, who combined his Egyptian Islamic Jihad movement with al-Qaida.

Documents recently found in the bombed headquarters of Iraqi’s Mukhabarat intelligence service refer to an invitation by Saddam’s government in 1998 for an al-Qaida envoy to visit Baghdad and subsequent visits by Iraqis to Afghanistan, according to a federal lawsuit against Iraq filed last month by the family of former FBI counterterrorism chief John O’Neill. He died in the Sept. 11 attacks.

The O’Neill lawsuit also cites an account of al-Qaida training from a former member of the Saddam Fedayeen, a special Iraqi paramilitary unit.

“A trainer at Unit 999, Abu Mohammed, who had escaped Iraq, confirmed that such training was under way on how to lay bombs and how to use chemical and biological weapons in operations in the Middle East and West. Unit 999 ran a course for a number of extremist Middle Eastern groups, including al-Qaida,” the suit states.

After being flushed from Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi is alleged to have set up a training camp in Ansar al-Islam in far northern Iraq, an area outside Saddam’s control to where a small number of al-Qaida operatives escaped. Other al-Zarqawi followers set up outside Baghdad around the time he sought medical attention there in 2002, officials said.

U.S. officials learned more about the al-Qaida ties to Iraq last year when two of the organization’s operatives were captured trying to cross from Iraq into Saudi Arabia. U.S. officials determined both were communicating with al-Zarqawi’s cell in Baghdad and that one had been trained in bin Laden’s Afghan camps.

In the past 18 months, France, Italy, Britain and Spain have captured other al-Qaida operatives in various stages of plotting chemical attacks in Western Europe, and gleaned additional information about the role al-Zarqawi played in Iraq and Afghanistan, the officials said.

AP-ES-09-13-03 1317EDT

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