WASHINGTON – The Pentagon's No. 2 official retreated Friday from his assertion that key lieutenants of Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden (search) are plotting with Saddam Hussein loyalists to kill Americans in Iraq.
In television and newspaper interviews on Thursday's anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (search) said hundreds of fighters from Al Qaeda and other groups are now in Iraq. Wolfowitz also said "a great many" bin Laden operatives were trying to link up with remnants of Saddam's regime to attack Americans.
"We know it (Iraq) had a great deal to do with terrorism in general and with Al Qaeda (search) in particular, and we know a great many of bin Laden's key lieutenants are now trying to organize in cooperation with old loyalists from the Saddam regime to attack in Iraq," Wolfowitz said Thursday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
"There are some thousands of former Baathists (search) (members of Saddam's Baath Party) and some hundreds of Al Qaeda and other foreign terrorists who are ... killing Americans and Iraqis and U.N. officials and moderate Shiite leaders in order to destabilize Iraq," Wolfowitz said in an interview with The Washington Post.
But Wolfowitz — an architect of U.S. policy in Iraq — said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press that he had misspoken.
He said U.S. military forces were still trying to identify foreign fighters flowing into Iraq and whether they are collaborating with Saddam loyalists resisting the U.S.-led occupation forces.
On the subject of bin Laden deputies, Wolfowitz said he was referring to only one man — bin Laden supporter Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search), one of the few names that Bush administration officials previously have cited to assert links between Al Qaeda and Iraq before the war.
Al-Zarqawi allegedly helped train Iraqis in the use of poisonous chemicals and once received medical care in Baghdad, U.S. officials have said.
"Zarqawi is actually the guy I was referring to — should have been more precise," Wolfowitz said Friday. "It's not a great many — it's one of bin Laden's key associates — probably better referred to that way than a key lieutenant."
"On the specific issue of cooperation (between Al Qaeda and insurgents), I have to emphasize this is a very hard target to penetrate," Wolfowitz said. "Our highest priority in Iraq is to get better intelligence on these people."
"There are some indications that they work together and they certainly work at common purpose," he said, declining to say what the indications are.
If Wolfowitz's original claim suggested a dangerous new development for the U.S.-led forces trying to stabilize the country.
Wolfowitz made his assertion Thursday after an ABC interviewer asked why the administration had put resources into the campaign in Iraq, which the interviewer said had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks, while bin Laden was still at large.
"I appreciate the chance to say it a little more carefully because this was sort of unanticipated," Wolfowitz told the AP in retracting his statements. "I went ... to talk about Sept. 11."
The Bush administration has outlined only limited evidence of Iraqi-Al Qaeda contacts before the war, and no conclusive evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda plotted joint terror operations.
Likewise, U.S. officials have said they have a poor picture of who is arrayed against U.S. forces in Iraq now, and how coordinated their activities are.
Even though weeks have passed, it remains unknown who carried out the three large terror bombings in Iraq since the war ended — at the Jordanian Embassy, the U.N. headquarters and a mosque in Najaf.
Commanders on the ground in Iraq said they are still pressing efforts to determine whether there was a link between insurgents attacking coalition forces and any particular terrorist organization.
Wolfowitz argued long before the war against Iraq that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, which he would sooner or later share with Al Qaeda or other terrorists bent on targeting America. No such weapons have been found.
Before Wolfowitz clarified his remarks Friday, two other senior administration officials had disputed his assertions, but only on condition of anonymity.