Saddam Hussein rejected overtures from al-Qaeda and believed Islamic extremists were a threat to his regime, a reversal of the portrait of an Iraq allied with Osama bin Laden that was painted by US President George W. Bush's administration, a Senate panel has found.
The White House's version was based in part on intelligence that officials knew was flawed, according to Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, citing newly declassified documents released by the panel.
The report, released on Friday, discloses for the first time a CIA assessment released in October last year that said that prior to the war, Saddam's government "did not have a relationship, harbor or turn a blind eye toward" al-Qaeda operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or his associates.
As recently as a news conference last month, Bush said people should "imagine a world in which you had Saddam Hussein" with the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction and "who had relations with Zarqawi."
Democrats singled out CIA Director George Tenet, saying that during a private meeting in July, Tenet told the panel that the White House pressured him and that he agreed to back up the administration's case for war despite his own agents' doubts about the intelligence it was based on.
"Tenet admitted to the Intelligence Committee that the policy makers wanted him to `say something about not being inconsistent with what the president had said,'" Intelligence Committee member Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, told reporters on Friday.
Tenet also told the committee that complying had been "the wrong thing to do," according to Levin.
"Well, it was much more than that," Levin said. "It was a shocking abdication of a CIA director's duty not to act as a shill for any administration or its policy."
Leaders of both parties accused each other of seeking political gain on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the attacks on Sept 11, 2001.
Republicans said the document contained little new information about prewar intelligence or postwar findings on Iraq's weapons and its connection to terrorist groups.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, a Republican, accused Democrats of trying to "use the committee ... insisting that they were deliberately duped into supporting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime."
"That is simply not true," Roberts said, "and I believe the American people are smart enough to recognize election-year politicking when they see it."
Congressional elections will be held in November.
The report speaks for itself, Democrats said.
The administration "exploited the deep sense of insecurity among Americans in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, leading a large majority of Americans to believe -- contrary to the intelligence assessments at the time -- that Iraq had a role in the 9/11 attacks," said Senator Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.
Still, Democrats were reluctant to say how the administration officials involved should be called to account.
Asked whether the wrongdoing amounted to criminal conduct, Levin and Rockefeller declined to answer. Rockefeller said later he did not believe Bush should be impeached over the matter.
According to the report, postwar findings indicate that Saddam "was distrustful of al-Qaeda and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime."