A growing number in government have misgivings about Iraq policy

WASHINGTON - While President Bush marshals congressional and international support for invading Iraq, a growing number of military officers, intelligence professionals and diplomats in his own government privately have deep misgivings about the administration's double-time march toward war.

These officials charge that administration hawks have exaggerated evidence of the threat that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein poses, including distorting his links to the al-Qaida terrorist network; have overstated the amount of international support for attacking Iraq; and have played down the potential repercussions of a new war in the Middle East.

They charge that the administration squelches dissenting views and that intelligence analysts are under intense pressure to produce reports supporting the White House's argument that Hussein poses such an immediate threat to the United States that pre-emptive military action is necessary.

"Analysts at the working level in the intelligence community are feeling very strong pressure from the Pentagon to cook the intelligence books," said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

They cited recent suggestions by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that Hussein and al-Qaida are working together.

Rumsfeld said Sept. 26 that the U.S. government has "bulletproof" confirmation of links between Iraq and al-Qaida, including "solid evidence" that members of the terrorist network maintain a presence in Iraq.

The facts are much less conclusive. Officials said Rumsfeld's statement was based in part on intercepted telephone calls, in which an al-Qaida member who apparently was passing through Baghdad was overheard calling friends or relatives, intelligence officials said. The intercepts provide no evidence that the suspected terrorist was working with the Iraqis or that he was working on a terrorist operation while he was in Iraq, they said.

In his speech, Bush said that a senior al-Qaida leader received medical treatment in Baghdad this year - implying larger cooperation - but he offered no evidence of complicity in any plot between the terrorist and Hussein's regime.

Rumsfeld also suggested that the Iraqi regime has offered a haven to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

While technically true, that too is misleading. Intelligence reports said the Iraqi ambassador to Turkey made the offer during a visit to Afghanistan in late 1998, after the United States attacked al-Qaida training camps with cruise missiles to retaliate for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But officials said the same intelligence reports said bin Laden rejected the offer because he didn't want Hussein to control his group.

In fact, the officials said, there's no ironclad evidence that the Iraqi regime and the terrorist network are working together, or that Hussein has ever contemplated giving chemical or biological weapons to al-Qaida, with whom he has deep ideological differences.

Bush stressed that if Hussein gained control of radioactive material no bigger than "a softball" he could build a nuclear weapon sufficient to intimidate his region, blackmail the world and covertly arm terrorists. But a senior administration intelligence official notes that Hussein has sought such highly enriched uranium for many years without success and that there is no evidence he has it now.