Despite their bitter divisions over possible war in Iraq, doves and many hawks on this side of the Atlantic share a common, often-stated belief: that there is “no evidence” of a link between Osama bin laden’s Al Qaida network and Saddam Hussein’s regime. In London and Washington, the Foreign Office, MI6, the State Department and the CIA have been spinnng this claim to reporters for more than a decade, long before the attacks of September 11 last year.

Constant repetition of an erroneous position does not, however, make it true. Having investigated the Iraqi connection for more than a year, I am convinced it is false. The strongest evidence comes from a surprising source – the files of those same intelligence agencies who have spent so long publicly playing this connection down.

According to the conventional wisdom, Saddam is a “secular” dictator, whose loathing for Islamic fundamentalism is intense, while bin Laden and his cohorts would like to kill the Iraqi president almost as much George W. Bush. All reports of a link can be disregarded on this ground alone.

Though they may get scant attention, some of the facts of Saddam’s involvement with Islamic terrorism are not disputed. Hamas, the fundamentalist Palestinian group, whose gift to the world is the suicide bomb, has maintained a Baghdad office – funded by Saddam – for many years. His intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, has a special department, whose sole function is liaison with Hamas. In return, Hamas has praised Saddam extravagantly on its website and on paper.

Since his defeat in 1991, Saddam’s supposed secularism has looked decidedly thin. Increasingly, he has relied on Islamist rhetoric, in an attempt to rally the “Arab street”. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa justified its call for Muslims to kill American and Jewish civilians on the basis of a lengthy critique of US hostility towards “secular” Iraq.

It is also undisputed that Iraqi-sponsored assassins tried to kill George Bush I on a visit to the Gulf in 1993. The same year, Abdul Rahman Yasin mixed and made the truck bomb which wrought destruction and killed six in the first New York World Trade Centre attack – then coolly boarded a plane for Baghdad, where he still resides. There is strong evidence that Ramzi Yousef, leader of both the 1993 New York bombing and a failed attempt two years later to down 12 a.m.erican airliners over the Pacific, was an Iraqi intelligence officer. All this was known in the nineties. Nevertheless, the “no connection” argument was rapidly becoming orthodoxy.

The 9/11 attacks were, self-evidently, a failure of intelligence: no one saw them coming. Awareness of this failure, and its possible consequences for individuals’ careers, are the only reasons I can find for the wall of spin which the spooks have fed to the media almost ever since. Iraq must have been more intensely spied upon than any other country throughout the 1990s.

If the agencies missed a Saddam-Al Qaida connection, it might reasonably be argued, then many heads should roll.

My own doubts emerged more than a year ago, when a very senior CIA man told me that, contrary to the line his own colleagues were assiduously disseminating, there was evidence of an Iraq-Al Qaida link. He confirmed a story I had been told by members of the anti-Saddam Iraqi National Congress – that two of the hijackers, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah, had met Mukhabarat officers in the months before 9/11 in the United Arab Emirates. This, he said, was part of a pattern of contact between Iraq and Al Qaida which went back years.

Yet the attempts to refute the link were feverish. The best known example is the strange case of the meetings in Prague between Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 plot’s alleged leader, and Ahmed Khalil Al-Ani, a Mukhabarat sabotage expert. For at least the third time, the New York Times tried at the end of October to rebut the claim that the Prague meetings ever happened, reporting that President Vaclav Havel had phoned the White House to tell Bush that it was fiction. Barely had the paper hit the streets before Havel’s spokesman stated publicly that the story was a “fabrication”. Not only had Havel not phoned Bush, the Czechs remained convinced that Atta did meet Al-Ani. They had been surveilling him continuously because his predecessor had been caught red-handed – in a plot to detonate a terrorist bomb.

As I reveal in the new issue of Vanity Fair, earlier this year the Pentagon established a special intelligence unit to re-examine evidence of an Iraq-Al Qaida relationship. After initially fighting the proposal, the CIA agreed to supply this unit with copies of its own reports going back ten years. I have spoken to three senior officials who have seen its conclusions, which are striking. “In the Cold War,” says one of them, “often you’d draw firm conclusions and make policy on the basis of just four or five reports. Here there are almost 100 separate examples of Iraq-Al Qaida cooperation going back to 1992.” All these reports, says the official, were given the CIA’s highest credibility rating – defined as information from a source which had proven reliable in the past. At least one concerns bin Laden personally, who is said to have spent weeks with a top Mukhabarat officer in Afghanistan in 1998.

This week, attention remains focused on the UN weapons inspectors, and the deadline for Iraq’s declaration of any weapons of mass destruction. But last month’s Security Council resolution also noted Iraq’s failure to abandon support for international terror, as it had promised at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. If there were the political will – rather a big if, admittedly – this could constitute a casus belli every bit as legitimate as Iraqi possession of a nuclear weapon.

Ignoring Iraq’s support for terror is a seductive proposition, which fits pleasingly with democracies’ natural reluctance to wage war. But if we are serious about winning the war on terror, self-delusion is not an option. An attempt to achieve regime change in Iraq would not be a distraction, but an integral part of the struggle.

David Rose is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine. His article on Saddam, Al Qaida and the Iraqi opposition goes on sale today.

This article ran in the Evening Standard on December 9, 2002