WASHINGTON, June 20 (UPI) -- The commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks has received new information indicating that a senior officer in an elite unit of the security services of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein may have been a member of al-Qaida involved in the planning of the suicide hijackings, panel members said Sunday.
John F. Lehman, a Reagan-era GOP defense official told NBC's "Meet the Press" that documents captured in Iraq "indicate that there is at least one officer of Saddam's Fedayeen, a lieutenant colonel, who was a very prominent member of al Qaida."
The Fedayeen were a special unit of volunteers given basic training in irregular warfare. The lieutenant colonel, Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, has the same name as an Iraqi thought to have attended a planning meeting for the Sept. 11 attacks in January 2000, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The meeting was also attended by two of the hijackers, Khalid al Midhar and Nawaf al Hamzi and senior al-Qaida leaders.
Lehman said that commission staff members continued to work on the issue and experts cautioned that the connection might be nothing more than coincidence.
"Shakir is a pretty common name," said terrorism analyst and author Peter Bergen, "and even if the two names refer to the same person, there might be a number of other explanations. Perhaps al-Qaida had penetrated Saddam's security apparatus."
Analysts say the Fedayeen was not an intelligence unit, but an irregular militia recruited from clans loyal to the regime in the capital, in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit and in the surrounding Tigris valley area. Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank set up by the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, described them to United Press International last year as "thugs and bumpkins."
He said the Fedayeen were "at the low end of the food chain in the security apparatus, doing street level work for the regime."
Nevertheless, the revelation seems sure to stoke the controversy over the extent of links between al-Qaida and Saddam's regime, links that were cited by the Bush administration as a justification for the invasion of Iraq.
On Wednesday, the commission published a staff statement saying that contacts between the regime and al-Qaida "do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship" and that, "We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaida cooperated on attacks against the United States."
Critics of the Bush administration seized on the comments as evidence that the White House had sought to mislead Americans about the relationship between Saddam and al-Qaida.
President Bush's likely Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said the president need to give "a fundamental explanation about why he rushed to war for a purpose it now turns out is not supported by the facts."
Both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, however, continued to stress that the links were extensive. Cheney hinted that the commission did not have all the facts, telling one interviewer that he "probably" had access to intelligence commission staff and members had not seen.
Sunday, Lehman acknowledged that, "the vice president was right when he said he may have things that we don't yet have. And we are now in the process of getting this latest intelligence."
Democratic panel member Richard Ben-Veniste agreed that the panel should study any more recent intelligence, "If there is additional information, we're happy to look at it, and we think we should get it."
Lehman added that the row illustrated the political minefield the commission was trying to tiptoe through in an election year when the focus of their inquiry is such an explosive issue. "We're under tremendous political pressures. Everything we come out with, one side or the other seizes on in this election year to try to make a political point on," he said.
He pointed out that the Clinton White House had made the same charges the current administration did about the danger that Iraq might pass chemical or biological weapons to al-Qaida. Those charges, he said, formed the basis for the missile strikes against alleged terrorist targets in Sudan in August 1998. "The Clinton administration portrayed the relationship between al-Qaida and Saddam's intelligence services as one of cooperating in weapons development," he said.
Commission Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, played down the differences between the commission's view and that of the administration. "When you begin to use words like 'relationship' and 'ties' and 'connections' and 'contacts,'" he told ABC's "This Week," "everybody has a little different view of what those words mean. But if you look at the core statements that we made ... I don't think there's a difference of opinion with regard to those statements.
"If there is, it has to be spelled out to me. "
Chairman Thomas Kean, meanwhile, stressed that the staff statement released Wednesday did not represent the settled view of the whole commission: "These staff reports have come along every now and then in connection with our public hearings. These staff reports are interim documents. The commission, for instance, does not get involved, the members, in the staff reports. When we do the report itself, that will be a product of the entire commission."
He added that there much more evidence of links between al-Qaida and Iran or Pakistan than Iraq, and pointed out that, "Our investigation is continuing. We're not finished yet."
The commission's two days of meetings last week marked their final public gatherings. They are to deliver a final report by July 26. Congress formed the commission to look into possible U.S. intelligence failures prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in which some 3,000 people were killed after the hijacking of four jetliners than crashing the aircraft into buildings in New York and Washington and in rural Pennsylvania.
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