WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. intelligence agencies warned the Bush administration before the Iraq war that al Qaeda and Iran could exploit a U.S. invasion to extend their sway in the region, a new Senate report said on Friday.
Congressional Democrats seized on the report by the Senate Intelligence Committee as clear evidence President George W. Bush, a Republican, and his advisers ignored warnings about the chaos that could follow a U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“Today’s report shows that the intelligence community gave the administration plenty of warning about the difficulties we would face if the decision was made to go to war,” said Sen. John Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and the committee’s chairman.
The panel’s ranking Republican member, Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri, said the Senate report looked back too selectively and he disputed its findings.
The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003. In January of that year, the Senate report said, the U.S. intelligence community predicted al Qaeda “probably would try to exploit any postwar transition in Iraq by replicating the tactics it has used in Afghanistan during the past year to mount hit-and-run operations against U.S. personnel.”
“Some militant Islamists in Iraq might benefit from increases in funding and popular support and could choose to conduct terrorist attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq,” U.S. intelligence concluded.
The 2003 intelligence papers also said, “Some elements in the Iranian government could decide to try to counter aggressively the U.S. presence in Iraq.”
The papers, which the report said were circulated widely in the Bush administration, also warned there was a “significant chance that domestic groups (in Iraq) would engage in violent conflict with each other.”
The Senate panel released its conclusions about prewar intelligence a day after a divided U.S. Congress approved $100 billion to keep fighting the war in Iraq, while Democrats pledged to keep trying to get Bush to withdraw troops.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat and longtime war opponent, said the Senate report was no surprise, because Bush had ignored “chapter and verse” of intelligence warnings. Before the war, Pelosi was the ranking member on the House intelligence panel.
“President Bush wanted to go to war in Iraq in the worst possible way, and he did,” Pelosi told reporters.
‘BETTER OFF WITHOUT SADDAM’
The president, asked by journalists on Thursday about reports the Senate document was about to be released, defended his decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein.
“Going into Iraq we were warned about a lot of things, some of which happened, some of which didn’t happen,” Bush said. “Obviously, as I made a decision as consequential as that, I weighed the risks and rewards of any decision. I firmly believe the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power.”
Bond said the report distorted the picture of intelligence available to U.S. policy-makers in 2003.
“The report highlights, with benefit of hindsight, only issues of intelligence assessments that seem to be important now,” Bond said in a conference call.
At least one Republican concluded U.S. intelligence had been prescient about the effects of war in Iraq.
“Our intelligence community accurately predicted many aspects of the chaotic landscape that we see in Iraq today,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who voted for the war in 2002 but soon afterward became a vocal critic and has flirted with a presidential run.