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Sept. 11 panel concludes al-Qaida tied more closely to Iran than Iraq

WASHINGTON --The final report by the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks concludes that al-Qaida's relationship with Iran and its client, the Hezbollah militant group, was far deeper and more long-standing than its links with Iraq, which never established operational ties with the terrorist group, according to officials familiar with the document.

Those findings, included in a nearly 600-page report to be released Thursday, will again put the panel in the middle of a political battle over claims by President Bush, Vice President Cheney and other administration officials that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida may have had significant ties. Bush said on Monday that U.S. officials were now probing possible Iranian links to the Sept. 11 attacks.

A pair of commission staff reports last month found that Iraq and al-Qaida had "no collaborative relationship" and dismissed accounts of an alleged 2001 meeting in Prague between an Iraqi intelligence chief and Mohammed Atta, the lead Sept. 11 hijacker.

Thursday's report, a product shaped by the commission's 10 appointed members, will offer similar conclusions, although it will include far more details about the known contacts between the terrorist group and Saddam's government, according to commission members and others familiar with the report.

"The end result is the same," said one commissioner who declined to be identified because of a panel embargo on the report's contents. "We will lay out the facts and let people draw their own conclusions."

One of the panel's newest findings, disclosed in media reports over the last few days, is that as many as 10 of the al-Qaida members who became hijackers on Sept. 11 had transited through Iran, which allegedly ordered border guards to turn a blind eye to al-Qaida associates.

Commission and government officials stress there is no evidence indicating that Tehran knowingly aided in the Sept. 11 plot. But Iran's apparent willingness to allow al-Qaida members to roam freely across its borders underscores the complicated relationship that emerged between them despite historic animosity between Sunni and Shia Muslims. There is compelling evidence that Shiite Iran has continued to give al-Qaida leaders safe haven even after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the commission report and other intelligence sources.

The Sept. 11 panel has also raised the possibility that al-Qaida may have had a "yet unproven" role in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen and has been blamed on a Saudi Hezbollah group. Iran is a primary sponsor of Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States.

Many of the commission's findings about Iran were discovered only in recent weeks from, among other sources, electronic intercepts and interrogations of al-Qaida suspects in U.S. custody, sources familiar with the commission's findings said. Even before then, commission Chairman Thomas Kean, a former Republican New Jersey governor, said that "there were a lot more active contacts, frankly, with Iran and with Pakistan than there were with Iraq."

Al-Qaida's ties to Iraq are far sketchier. At the leadership level, bin Laden and his associates for years had seen Saddam as one of the secular Muslim leaders that had to be replaced. On the other side, as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence recently reported, Saddam dealt harshly with Islamic extremists, and the CIA had human intelligence reports that "the regime sought to prevent Iraqi youth from joining al-Qaida."

The Sept. 11 commission was the first to disclose that bin Laden had at one time sponsored Ansar al-Islam, an anti-Saddam, Sunni Kurdish group in northern Iraq, but the al-Qaida leader dropped that aid at the request of the Sudanese. At that time, the Sudanese were providing bin Laden with safe haven, and the Khartoum government wanted good relations with Iraq.

Although an Iraqi intelligence official may have actually met with bin Laden in Sudan in 1994, after two failed attempts, the CIA told the panel, nothing apparently developed from the meeting. The Senate report also cautioned that one source for the 1994 meeting was an Italian newspaper article published four years later and that other information came from "raw reports from foreign sources."

Two senior bin Laden lieutenants now in CIA custody, Abu Zubaida and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, both insisted that al-Qaida cooperation with Iraq would have been difficult. Zubaida, according to the Senate report, told CIA interrogators that joint activities were "extremely unlikely," although he admitted it was possible there were communications he did not know about.

The Sept. 11 commission raised questions about whether al-Qaida was behind the 1993 World Trade Center attack and challenged Cheney's repeated claim that Iraq may have been connected through one of the plotters.

The CIA considers Ramzi Yousef, ringleader of the 1993 bombing, to have been an independent operator, though he trained in Afghanistan and subsequently trained al-Qaida recruits. His entry into the United States on a phony Iraqi passport before carrying out the bombing is no indication Iraq was involved in the plot because stolen Iraqi passports "were common at this time," according to a CIA report.

The vice president has repeatedly pointed to Abdul Rahman Yasin, a fugitive from the 1993 World Trade Center prosecution, because he fled to Iraq with Iraqi assistance. But CIA officials told the Senate panel that Yasin, an Iraqi, was held "in custody since that time" in Baghdad by Iraqis who explained they feared the United States would misrepresent his role. Yasin, however, disappeared after the U.S. invasion and has not been found.

The 9/11 commission also adopted the position of the FBI and CIA that there is no evidence to support allegations, again repeated by Cheney, that Atta met Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, the Iraqi Intelligence Service chief in Prague, in the spring of 2001. A surveillance camera and cell phone records place him in Florida and Virginia during that time.

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