Lending support to the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein’s regime posed a threat to the United States, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said Friday that his intelligence services had received several reports before the war last year that Iraq was planning terrorist attacks against U.S. targets.
Putin said Russia had no reason to believe that Iraq had actually engineered any attacks. He also did not draw a connection between the regime and Al Qaeda, as President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have continued to do this week despite findings by a commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks that there was “no credible evidence” that Iraq and the terrorist network had cooperated.
Speaking with reporters during a visit to the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, Putin said Russian agents had received information after the Sept. 11 attacks that Iraqi agents were plotting strikes against American targets, both at home and abroad.
“After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and before the start of the military operation in Iraq, Russian special services several times received information that the official services of the Saddam regime were preparing terrorist acts on the United States, and beyond its borders against the U.S. military and other interests,” he said.
“This information was passed on to our American colleagues,” he said.
Traveling with Bush aboard Air Force One on Friday, a White House spokeswoman said the U.S. had “ongoing cooperation with the Russians on a variety of matters, including intelligence matters,” but she refused to discuss specifics.
“We’ve declassified as much information as we can to talk about the threat that Saddam Hussein posed,” the spokeswoman said, adding that Hussein was “a threat to America, to the world.”
State Department officials said they could not specify what the Russian intelligence indicated, but Adam Ereli, a deputy department spokesman, said the two countries “have a very good and close record of cooperation in the field of counter-terrorism.”
Putin’s statement came a day after an unnamed Russian intelligence officer made a similar revelation to the Interfax news agency. The officer said his nation’s intelligence services had received a report in early 2002 that Iraqi secret services were organizing attacks against the U.S.
“This information was more than once passed on to our American partners in oral and written form in the fall of 2002,” the officer said. He said there existed a “direct threat to the U.S. from the Saddam Hussein regime.”
The accuracy of the intelligence the Russians say they passed on to the U.S. could not be independently confirmed.
The Russian statements are unusual, coming from a country that strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq. The nation’s military had a long history of cooperation with the Hussein regime, and senior retired military officers were in Baghdad on the eve of the war, attempting to provide advice to the Iraqi leader.
“One thing is quite clear: Russian special services had significantly more freedom to collect information in Iraq than their American counterparts, because they were always perceived as a friendly force by the Iraqis,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, director of the National Strategy Council think tank in Moscow.
Retired air force Gen. Igor Maltsev, former deputy commander of Soviet air defense, said in an interview that he had visited Baghdad a week before the war and met with “the highest military leadership” to offer support in preparation for a conventional war. He said he was told that Hussein’s military was already preparing for underground warfare.
“They received us and they thanked us, but you could tell they were already ... fighting this guerrilla war we see now,” he said.
“Saddam had dozens of thousands of elite forces ... and sky-high piles of weapons and military hardware. They all hid themselves, melted with the crowd and hid their weapons, and now they are using them to kill Americans every day,” he said.
Maltsev said he had seen no evidence that Hussein was plotting attacks outside Iraq; instead, the Iraqi leader appeared focused on insurgent-style strikes against Americans there.
“Does blowing up a train loaded partly with innocent people and partly with military hardware constitute an act of terrorism, or should it be defined as guerrilla warfare? There are no clear-cut answers here, for the line between terrorism and resistance to invasion is very, very thin. It is almost nonexistent,” Maltsev said.
He said there were “never any direct or indirect indications” of links between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime. “There were experts in that field among Russian delegations, but we never heard them talking about such ties.”
Putin was careful to distinguish between Russia’s opposition to a war that did not have United Nations backing and Russia’s cooperation with the U.S. in combating terrorism.
“Despite that information about terrorist attacks being prepared by Saddam’s regime, Russia’s position on Iraq remains unchanged,” Putin said Friday.
“We have passed on information to our U.S. partners, but we believe there are procedures for the use of force in international affairs that are outlined in international law, and these procedures were not observed in this case,” he said.
Russia joined fellow Iraq war opponents Germany and France this month in approving a U.N. Security Council resolution for restoring Iraqi sovereignty and spelling out Iraq’s authority over U.S.-led multinational forces, which are scheduled to be in the country at least through 2005.
And Putin rose to Bush’s defense on Iraq this month at a summit of the Group of 8 industrialized nations, saying the U.S. president’s political opponents did not have “any kind of moral right” to criticize Bush on Iraq when a Democratic administration under President Clinton in 1999 “conducted exactly the same kind of policy
Some Russian political analysts said Friday that, although Putin may have given the U.S. information about Iraqi terrorist plots, he was probably disclosing it now to boost Bush’s chances for reelection.
“It’s apparent that Russians and President Putin are interested in a second term for Bush,” said Liliya Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “We’ve always had good relations with Republicans. We dislike Democrats, because Democrats always care about democracy in Russia.”
Some analysts say the controversy over Bush’s policies in the Middle East is distracting Europe from Putin’s increasing authoritarianism and human rights abuses in Chechnya.
“Once [presumed Democratic presidential nominee John] Kerry comes to power, the U.S. and Europe will most likely engage in a new honeymoon ... and it means they may jointly turn their attention back to Russia,” Belkovsky said. “Thus the Kremlin is interested in seeing the Republicans cling to power, despite all the differences on many issues between Putin and Bush.”
Times staff writer Maura Reynolds aboard Air Force One and staff writer Sergei L. Loiko and special correspondent Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.