Sun, Jun 20, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Putin's Iraq claim startles US officials

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MOSCOW

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that Russia gave intelligence reports to the Bush administration suggesting that the government of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was preparing terrorist attacks in the US or against US targets overseas.

But officials at the US State Department expressed surprise, saying they knew of no such information from Russia, Reuters reported.

Putin said Russia's intelligence services received and passed along the information after the Sept. 11 attacks and before the US-led invasion of Iraq in March last year. He gave no details of the nature of the intelligence or the type of attacks reportedly being prepared.

Putin said Russian "special services" had received information about plans for terrorist attacks "more than once." He said that US President George W. Bush had "personally thanked the chief of one of the Russian special services for that information, which he considered very important."

Putin added, however, that Russia had no information that anyone in Iraq carried out the plans for attacks. And he emphasized that the intelligence did not change Russia's opposition to Bush's decision to go to war, in part because of administration assertions of Iraq's support for terrorism. Putin said the criteria for resorting to military force were clearly defined and "were not observed" in the US-led war to overthrow Saddam.

"It is one thing to have information that Saddam's regime is preparing terrorist attacks, but we did not have information that it was involved in any terrorist acts," Putin said in remarks from Kazakhstan that were carried by official news agencies and broadcast on state television.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters he did not know anything about the information that Putin said Russia passed on. No such information was communicated from Russia through the State Department, he said.

"Everybody's scratching their heads," another State Department official said.

Putin, who has cultivated a warm relationship with Bush des-pite differences over the war, made his remarks a day after the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks reported in Washington that there was no clear evidence that Iraq had a relationship with al-Qaeda. That called into question a central rationale to the war, although Bush disputed the finding.

Putin's remarks could be interpreted as lending credence to the Bush administration's concerns over Iraq and whether it supported terrorism in the months before the war, but it was impossible to say how credible the Russian intelligence reports were.

A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, declined to elaborate on Putin's remarks, but said that intelligence reports alone could not justify the use of force against another country.

"If we all start wars based on intelligence," Peskov said, "then it will be the end of the world."

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