Iraqi intelligence documents discovered in Baghdad by The Telegraph have provided the first evidence of a direct link between Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'eda terrorist network and Saddam Hussein's regime.
Papers found yesterday in the bombed headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Iraq's intelligence service, reveal that an al-Qa'eda envoy was invited clandestinely to Baghdad in March 1998.
The documents show that the purpose of the meeting was to establish a relationship between Baghdad and al-Qa'eda based on their mutual hatred of America and Saudi Arabia. The meeting apparently went so well that it was extended by a week and ended with arrangements being discussed for bin Laden to visit Baghdad.
The papers will be seized on by Washington as the first proof of what the United States has long alleged - that, despite denials by both sides, Saddam's regime had a close relationship with al-Qa'eda.
The Telegraph found the file on bin Laden inside a folder lying in the rubble of one of the rooms of the destroyed intelligence HQ. There are three pages, stapled together; two are on paper headed with the insignia and lettering of the Mukhabarat.
They show correspondence between Mukhabarat agencies over preparations for the visit of al-Qa'eda's envoy, who travelled to Iraq from Sudan, where bin Laden had been based until 1996. They disclose what Baghdad hopes to achieve from the meeting, which took place less than five months before bin Laden was placed at the top of America's most wanted list following the bombing of two US embassies in east Africa.
Perhaps aware of the sensitivities of the subject matter, Iraqi agents at some point clumsily attempted to mask out all references to bin Laden, using white correcting fluid. The dried fluid was removed to reveal the clearly legible name three times in the documents.
One paper is marked "Top Secret and Urgent". It is signed "MDA", a codename believed to be the director of one of the intelligence sections within the Mukhabarat, and dated February 19, 1998. It refers to the planned trip from Sudan by bin Laden's unnamed envoy and refers to the arrangements for his visit.
A letter with this document says the envoy is a trusted confidant of bin Laden. It adds: "According to the above, we suggest permission to call the Khartoum station [Iraq's intelligence office in Sudan] to facilitate the travel arrangements for the above-mentioned person to Iraq. And that our body carry all the travel and hotel costs inside Iraq to gain the knowledge of the message from bin Laden and to convey to his envoy an oral message from us to bin Laden."
The letter refers to al-Qa'eda's leader as an opponent of the Saudi Arabian regime and says that the message to convey to him through the envoy "would relate to the future of our relationship with him, bin Laden, and to achieve a direct meeting with him."
According to handwritten notes at the bottom of the page, the letter was passed on through another director in the Mukhabarat and on to the deputy director general of the intelligence service.
It recommends that "the deputy director general bring the envoy to Iraq because we may find in this envoy a way to maintain contacts with bin Laden". The deputy director general has signed the document. All of the signatories use codenames.
The other documents then confirm that the envoy travelled from Khartoum to Baghdad in March 1998, staying at al-Mansour Melia, a first-class hotel. It mentions that his visit was extended by a week. In the notes in a margin, a name "Mohammed F. Mohammed Ahmed" is mentioned, but it is not clear whether this is the the envoy or an agent.
Intriguingly, the Iraqis talk about sending back an oral message to bin Laden, perhaps aware of the risk of a written message being intercepted. However, the documents do not mention if any meeting took place between bin Laden and Iraqi officials.
The file contradicts the claims of Baghdad, bin Laden and many critics of the coalition that there was no link between the Iraqi regime and al-Qa'eda. One Western intelligence official contacted last night described the file as "sensational", adding: "Baghdad clearly sought out the meeting. The regime would have wanted it to happen in the capital as it's only there they would feel safe from surveillance by Western intelligence."
Over the past three weeks, The Telegraph has discovered various other intelligence files in the wrecked Mukhabarat building, including documents revealing how Russia passed on to Iraq details of private conversations between Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, and how Germany held clandestine meetings with the regime.
A Downing Street spokesman said last night: "Since Saddam's fall a series of documents have come to light which will have to be fully assessed by the proper authorities over a period of time. We will certainly want to study these documents as part of that process to see if they shed new light on the relationship between Saddam's regime and al-Qa'eda.