Bluntly contradicting the Bush administration, the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks reported Wednesday there was "no credible evidence" that Saddam Hussein helped al-Qaida target the United States.
In a chilling report that sketched the history of Osama bin Laden's network, the commission said his far-flung training camps were "apparently quite good." Terrorists-to-be were encouraged to "think creatively about ways to commit mass murder," it added.
Bin Laden made overtures to Saddam for assistance, the commission said in the staff report, as he did with leaders in Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere as he sought to build an Islamic army.
While Saddam dispatched a senior Iraqi intelligence official to Sudan to meet with bin Laden in 1994, the commission said it had not turned up evidence of a "collaborative relationship."
The Bush administration has long claimed links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, and cited them as one reason for last year's invasion of Iraq.
On Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney said in a speech that the Iraqi dictator "had long established ties with al-Qaida."
The bipartisan commission issued its findings as it embarked on two days of public hearings into the worst terrorist attacks in American history.
The panel intends to issue a final report in July on the hijackings on Sept. 11, 2001 that killed nearly 3,000, destroyed the World Trade Centers in New York and damaged the Pentagon outside Washington. A fourth plane commandeered by terrorists crashed in the countryside in Pennsylvania.
The staff report pieced together information on the development of bin Laden's network, from the far-flung training camps in Afghanistan and elsewhere, to funding from "well-placed financial facilitators and diversions of funds from Islamic charities."
Reports that bin Laden had a huge personal fortune to finance acts of terror are overstated, the report said.
The description of the training camp operations contained elements of faint, grudging praise.
"A worldwide jihad needed terrorists who could bomb embassies or hijack airliners, but it also needed foot soldiers for the Taliban in its war against the Northern Alliance, and guerrillas who could shoot down Russian helicopters in Chechnya or ambush Indian units in Kashmir," it said.