WASHINGTON – President Bush's national security adviser on Wednesday accused Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime of sheltering members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network in Baghdad and helping Usama bin Laden's operatives in developing chemical weapons.
Condoleezza Rice's comments -- by far the strongest statements yet from the U.S. government alleging Al Qaeda contacts with the Iraqi government -- were aired Wednesday on PBS' The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
Her accusations came as the Bush administration continues to make its case to a skeptical world that Saddam should be removed from power, by force if necessary. The charges also came as the White House sought to fend off accusations from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that Bush was playing politics with the debate over war in Iraq.
"We clearly know that there were in the past and have been contacts between senior Iraqi officials and members of Al Qaeda going back for actually quite a long time," Rice said. "We know too that several of the (Al Qaeda) detainees, in particular some high-ranking detainees, have said that Iraq provided some training to Al Qaeda in chemical weapons development."
Previously, the widely held view has been that while Saddam and bin Laden both oppose the United States, their motivations are too different for them to work together. Saddam seeks secular power; bin Laden's drive comes from religious motivations and his opposition to the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world.
But Rice said, "There clearly are contacts between Al Qaeda and Iraq that can be documented; there clearly is testimony that some of the contacts have been important contacts and that there's a relationship here."
She suggested that details of the contacts will be released later.
Previously, U.S. intelligence officials have said that some Al Qaeda members have been detected in Iraq, but that they appeared to simply be crossing the country after fleeing Afghanistan for their native countries on the Arabian peninsula or in North Africa. U.S. intelligence has also received information that some Al Qaeda leaders are hiding in Iran, and the U.S. government is looking into reports that Al Qaeda operatives are conducting training just over the Iranian border from Afghanistan.
Rice said that much of the information is coming from Al Qaeda operatives captured since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. This includes several senior leaders whom the U.S. alleges organized terrorist attacks.
"No one is trying to make an argument at this point that Saddam Hussein somehow had operational control of what happened on Sept. 11, so we don't want to push this too far, but this is a story that is unfolding, and it is getting clearer, and we're learning more," Rice said.
"And there are some Al Qaeda personnel who found refuge in Baghdad," Rice said.
Earlier in the day, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made a vague reference to Iraq-al Qaida links during a NATO meeting in Warsaw, Poland, but didn't offer details.
Administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Rice's disclosure was significant because it marked the first time that the White House claimed that Al Qaeda operated in Saddam-controlled Baghdad. It was an effort to counter suggestions that Al Qaeda operatives were solely in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq, which he doesn't control. The disclosure is part of an effort to strengthen the case against Saddam, the officials said.
Previously, it's been known that Ansar al-Islam, an Islamic extremist group in northern Iraq, sent about a dozen of its members to bin Laden's camps. The group is largely composed of ethnic Kurds and had experimented with biological weapons, U.S. officials have said. But any links to Saddam's government were dubious.
Bin Laden has sought chemical, biological and nuclear weapons for a decade, U.S. intelligence officials have said. His followers are believed to have experimented with rudimentary chemical and biological weapons, but they lacked the sophistication to use them in a way that would kill large numbers of people.
Saddam's military used chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s and on rebelling Iraqi Kurds. He has also researched biological and nuclear weapons -- previously, the key complaint of the Bush administration against Saddam.
Saddam's government denies having any of these weapons.
After Sept. 11, officials in the Czech Republic said that chief hijacker Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague, which some viewed as a link between Iraq and the attacks. But U.S. officials have since said they doubt the meeting took place.
The Iraqi government has been linked to other groups labeled terrorist by the United States -- primarily those that oppose Iran and Israel.