US claims contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda


US/IRAQ: The US has detected links between Iraq and al-Qaeda but has not established Iraqi involvement in the September 11th attacks, top officials said yesterday. Secretary of State Mr Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Ms Condoleezza Rice gave the strongest indications yet that Osama bin Laden's group had been in contact with Iraqi leader PresidentSaddam Hussein's government.

However, Mr Powell told CBS television: "There is no smoking gun that would link the regime in Baghdad to 9/11 [September 11th attacks\]."

Ms Rice told Fox News Sunday: "There are clearly links between Iraq and terrorism, and there are al-Qaeda personnel that have been spotted in Baghdad."

"There is some evidence that there have been various meetings concerning Iraqi personnel and al-Qaeda personnel," she said. But she added that the US was not suggesting that "Saddam Hussein somehow planned and plotted 9/11. She added: "There's plenty to indict Saddam Hussein without a direct link to 9-11. He clearly has links to terrorism."

US officials have remained largely silent on contacts between Iraq and bin Laden's organisation.

Mr Powell said: "We have been examining all connections that exist".

According to the the Sunday Telegraph, the British government has promised to make a case against Iraq which reveals the links to al-Qaeda. It says the evidence includes proof that President Saddam has allowed al-Qaeda and bin Laden to train on his territory. The British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, is to release his evidence on September 24th, the day set for a parliamentary debate on Iraq.

Mr Powell also hinted yesterday at the possibility of a two-step UN resolution on Iraq which could allow members of the Security Council to delay the key question of whether they support military action against the Iraqi regime.

He said yesterday that while the US would prefer a single resolution which, in effect, authorised force against Iraq, it understood that many other countries wanted two separate votes.

"Because this is a discussion with our friends, we're not ruling out any options at this point."

He added in an interview on NBC News that President Bush had deliberately referred to "resolutions" in his speech to the UN on Thursday.

UN members are set this week to begin the drafting of a resolution or resolutions which would set a strict timetable for Iraq to agree to comply with all outstanding UN resolutions.

US officials yesterday said the demands on Iraq must include all previous UN resolutions requiring the Iraqi regime to disarm and end its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, cease abusing domestic minorities, and return or account for all Gulf war prisoners.

Mr Powell said Iraq should only be given weeks to agree if it would comply.

He ruled out any negotiations with Iraq over those conditions.

Mr Powell's willingness to consider two resolutions may indicate continued disagreements within the US administration rather than any softening of the US position.

Ms Rice said on ABC News that the US would prefer a single resolution spelling out that there would be consequences if Iraq refused to comply. However, it would "leave open precisely how we deal with the use of force". That could free the US to act on its own.

Another senior US official said at the weekend that the US wanted to avoid a two-step process in which the Security Council was left, in effect, with a veto over possible military action.

He said the resolution should leave the decision on whether the Iraqi President had complied with UN demands in the hands of the US-led coalition.

"The decision-making authority should not be in the hands of the Security Council. That remains a critical element for the US."

The US appears confident that the UN demands will be such that the Iraqi regime will not agree to comply.

The official said he had "complete faith in Saddam Hussein" that he would not allow unfettered access of weapons inspectors.

On Saturday, Mr Bush put further pressure on the UN by saying it must show "backbone" in disarming Iraq or Washington would "deal with the problem" .

"Enough is enough," Mr Bush said.

"The UN will either be able to function as a peacekeeping body as we head into the 21st century, or it will be irrelevant. And that's what we're about to find out."

He continued: "But make no mistake about it, if we have to deal with the problem, we'll deal with it." - (AFP, Financial Times Service)