President Bush said lots of things about Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the Iraq War. But few of his charges grabbed more attention than an unscripted remark he made at a Texas political fund-raiser on Sept. 26, 2002. "After all, this is a guy who tried to kill my dad at one time," Bush said. The comment referred to a 1993 claim by the Kuwaiti government—accepted by the Clinton administration—that the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) had plotted to assassinate President George H.W. Bush during a trip to Kuwait that spring. Ever since, armchair psychologists have suggested that personal revenge may have been one reason for the president's determination to overthrow Saddam's regime.
But curiously little has been heard about the allegedly foiled assassination plot in the five years since the U.S. military invaded Iraq. A just-released Pentagon study on the Iraqi regime's ties to terrorism only adds to the mystery. The review, conducted for the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command, combed through 600,000 pages of Iraqi intelligence documents seized after the fall of Baghdad, as well as thousands of hours of audio- and videotapes of Saddam's conversations with his ministers and top aides. The study found that the IIS kept remarkably detailed records of virtually every operation it planned, including plots to assassinate Iraqi exiles and to supply explosives and booby-trapped suitcases to Iraqi embassies. But the Pentagon researchers found no documents that referred to a plan to kill Bush. The absence was conspicuous because researchers, aware of its potential significance, were looking for such evidence. "It was surprising," said one source familiar with the preparation of the report (who under Pentagon ground rules was not permitted to speak on the record). Given how much the Iraqis did document, "you would have thought there would have been some veiled reference to something about [the plot]."
The failure does not, of course, prove that the Iraqis were not planning such an operation. "It would not have surprised me at all if the Iraqis expunged any record of that—it was an utter embarrassment for them," says Paul Pillar, the CIA's former top analyst on the Middle East. But others have wondered whether the original allegations were exaggerated. The Kuwaiti claim grew out of the arrest of a band of whisky smugglers near the Iraq border that spring. Kuwaiti authorities also recovered a Toyota Land Cruiser containing 175 pounds of explosives connected to a detonator. After several days in Kuwaiti custody, the smugglers' ringleader, Wali al-Ghazali, confessed that he had been dispatched by an Iraqi intelligence agent to blow up former president Bush. Amnesty International questioned whether al-Ghazali (the only one to claim that Bush was the target) had been tortured. But when an FBI team concluded that the detonator and explosives closely resembled other Iraqi bombs, President Clinton ordered a Tomahawk cruise-missile strike on IIS headquarters. Years later Kuwait's emir declined to sign al-Ghazali's death warrant and commuted the sentences of four of the six convicted plotters. "It was always a circumstantial case," says Judith Yaphe, another former CIA analyst on Iraq. A White House spokesman declined to comment, but a U.S. intelligence official said, "It remains our view that Saddam's government had a hand" in the 1993 plot, and that information since the war "lends further credence" to that view.
Evidence of the Bush plot wasn't the only thing the Pentagon researchers couldn't find. There were also no records showing what the report called a "smoking gun" connection between Saddam's regime and Al Qaeda—one of the principal claims made by the White House to advance the case for war. The report did find plenty of evidence that Saddam's regime had close ties to other (mainly Palestinian) terror groups and had maintained contacts with some radical Islamic movements—including, according to one 1993 document, Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Last week Vice President Dick Cheney said the document showed there was a "link between Iraq and Al Qaeda." But Pillar notes the Egyptian group—headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri—didn't merge with Al Qaeda until years later. "This is the same kind of word game they played before the war," Pillar says.
Perhaps most revealing of all was a tape of Saddam's conversations with his ministers after the World Trade Center bombing in February 1993—a plot linked to a group of Islamic radicals, one of whom, Abdul Rahman Yasin, was an Iraqi-American who fled to Baghdad after the attack. For years Bush administration officials like Cheney and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz charged that Iraq had given "sanctuary" to Yasin, suggesting that the regime may have been complicit in the 1993 bombing. But the newly discovered tape shows that Saddam and his ministers were puzzled by the bombing and wondered whether the "Zionists" or U.S. intelligence were secretly behind it. They also were deeply suspicious of Yasin, whom the Iraqis had in custody and were interrogating. Yasin, Saddam says on the tape, is "too organized in what he is saying and is playing games." The Pentagon researcher said the exchange shows how "paranoid and suspicious" the Iraqis were about their adversaries. They may not have been alone.