By ANDREW BUNCOMBE
WASHINGTON - The Bush Administration's credibility was dealt a devastating blow yesterday when the commission investigating the attacks of September 11, 2001, said there was no credible evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime had assisted al Qaeda.
That possibility was repeatedly suggested by the President and his senior officials, and given as a reason for the invasion of Iraq.
A report by the independent commission said Iraqi and al Qaeda operatives had contact in the 1990s, but it appeared Osama bin Laden's requests for a partnership were rebuffed.
"We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda co-operated on attacks against the United States," the commission said.
The report forced the Bush Administration onto the defensive last night.
While Bush has been forced to admit that no specific evidence linked Saddam to September 11, his deputy, Dick Cheney, claimed on Tuesday that the former Iraqi leader was "a patron of terrorism" who had long-established ties with al Qaeda.
Critics of the White House say there was a deliberate policy to manipulate public opinion and create an association between Saddam and the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
If such a plan existed, it has been successful - a Washington Post poll taken last September found 69 per cent of Americans believed Saddam was involved in the September 11 attacks.
The commission's report, issued at the start of its final two days of public hearings into the circumstances surrounding the attacks, said that in the early 1990s, al Qaeda and Saddam's regime had made overtures to each other.
In 1994, Saddam sent a senior intelligence official to Sudan to meet Bin Laden.
Bin Laden requested help to procure weapons and establish training camps but Iraq did not respond.
The report added: "Two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq."
The commission's report also revealed that the initial plan for the attack on America - drawn up by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a senior al Qaeda operative now in US custody - envisioned a much broader assault on 10 different US cities.
Targets included the FBI headquarters in Washington, the CIA headquarters in Virginia, and nuclear plants and tall buildings in California and Washington state.
Mohammed apparently told interrogators the centrepiece of the plot was to have been the 10th plane, on which he would have flown.
Mohammed would have killed all the male passengers on board before contacting news organisations and landing at an airport where he would have released women and children.
He would then have made a speech denouncing the US.
Bin Laden rejected that plan, but approved a scaled-back mission involving four aircraft.
The commission report said at least 10 other al Qaeda operatives who were to have participated in the attacks had been identified.
They did not take part in the mission for a variety of reasons including visa problems and suspicions by US airport officials.
The commission said that al Qaeda had been drastically changed and decentralised since the attacks.
But it retained regional networks that were seeking to attack the US.
Its ability to conduct an anthrax attack was one of the most immediate threats.
12 days to the handover of power in Iraq
Car bomb A car slammed into a crowd and exploded last night outside a Baghdad recruiting station for the Iraqi Army. At least 33 people were killed and 120 wounded in the blast as volunteers queued to join up. At least 10 vehicles were damaged when the car, packed with explosives, detonated, shattering windows and scattering glass across the street.
Now for the peace US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the Iraq war, has begun talks with Iraq's interim leaders. Coalition officials say about 60 per cent of the Iraqi government has been transferred to Iraqi control.
Message from the boss President George W. Bush gave a pep talk yesterday to American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, claiming steady progress was being made towards democracy in both countries. "The future of a free Iraq is now coming into view," Bush said in a message broadcast by satellite. "A democratic free Iraq is on the way." Bush said he understood the hardships that had strained morale among some soldiers.