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Iraq Claims 'No Connection' to Al Qaeda

No matter what President Bush says, Iraq has no connection with Al Qaeda terrorists and no weapons of mass destruction, a foreign affairs specialist in the Iraqi Parliament said Wednesday.

"These allegations have been raised before by Mr. Bush," lawmaker Hazem Bajilan told Associated Press Television News. He called them simply pretexts for war designs to control the economy of this region.

There was no other immediate Iraqi government reaction to the Bush speech, which took place before dawn Iraqi time Wednesday and which was not generally available via Iraqi television or radio.

At a news conference before Bush's speech Tuesday, Iraqi presidential adviser Amer Rashid reiterated Iraq's consistent position that it has no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs. "Iraq has been free of any mass destruction weapons ... since (the) end of 1991," he said.

Bajilan, a member of the external and Arab affairs committee of the Iraqi National Assembly, commented on repeated allegations made by the Bush administration, without presenting concrete evidence, that Iraq illegally retains chemical or biological weapons.

"The former U.N. inspection teams and the current U.N. teams have both made sure there are no such weapons," he said, referring to U.N. inspections in the 1990s that led to the destruction of thousands of chemical and biological weapons, and to the U.N. arms hunt resumed here two months ago.

Of the purported Baghdad tie to terrorists, Bajilan said, "There's no connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq."

On Tuesday night, Rashid complained that Monday's update reports to the U.N. Security Council by chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei on those two months of U.N. inspections had focused too much on problems and too little on progress.

Blix said Iraq seems not to have come to "genuine acceptance" of U.N. disarmament demands, embodied in resolutions forbidding such ultimate weapons to Iraq since its defeat in the 1991 Gulf War.

"We are cooperating with all our capacity," Rashid said, "and if there is a demand for additional cooperation on some issue, here or there, we will do it."

One issue involves U.N. requests for private interviews with Iraqi scientists, engineers or others with possible knowledge about any continuing programs of weapons of mass destruction. The U.N. inspectors believe specialists would be more candid under questioning if Iraqi government officials were not listening in.

Hiro Ueki, spokesman for the U.N. inspection agencies in Baghdad, told reporters Tuesday that two more scientists in the previous two days had declined requests for private interviews from the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, known as UNMOVIC. A total of 16 Iraqis have refused to undergo questioning without witnesses present.

Under an agreement reached Jan. 20 with Blix and ElBaradei, Baghdad officials have been encouraging Iraqi scientists to submit to interviews with no Iraqi monitors present, Rashid told reporters. But "all of them, they demanded a representative from (the government) or a friend or colleague as witnesses," he said.

Presidential adviser Rashid, a retired lieutenant general and former chief of Iraq's military industries, said the scientists worry that their words might be distorted by their interviewers.

"This is a very sensitive issue," he said. "Who can protect the rights of such scientists? This idea of having a witness present was an idea to protect the rights of those people."

But he said the Baghdad government would look for a way around the impasse with the U.N. inspection agency. "On this issue we are ready to study with them," he said. "It isn't a real problem."

He did not specify what kind of compromise arrangements might be reached.

The inspectors continue to conduct informal interviews of specialists during their daily visits to sites, typically to learn about the operations of facilities, locations of files and similar practical matters. Although UNMOVIC has conducted no formal, "sit-down" interviews thus far, ElBaradei's agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has conducted three such interviews with Iraqi monitors present, Ueki said.

In the 1990s, a previous U.N. inspection agency formally interviewed scores of Iraqi scientists and others, with monitors present, in the process of locating and destroying the great bulk of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons and dismantling Iraq's program to try to build nuclear bombs. Inspectors said such interviews, though monitored, proved helpful in their work.

Asked whether UNMOVIC has decided not to formally interview any scientists with Iraqi government officials present, Ueki said, "I don't have any further guidance on this matter."

The daily inspections continued Wednesday, U.N. teams visiting a missile fuel plant, an ammunition depot and an agricultural research center, among other sites, the Information Ministry reported.