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Closing Ranks On Iraq-Qaeda Link

Disputing the findings of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terror attacks, President Bush continues to insist there was a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

In a political speech Thursday night in Tacoma, Wash., reports CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller, Mr. Bush again argued that Saddam was a threat that had to be dealt with.

"He provided a safe haven for people like Zarqawi, who still kills in Iraq today," the president said.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is considered the most dangerous foreign fighter in Iraq and one of the world's top terrorists.

Vice President Dick Cheney echoed that sentiment Friday, saying the "evidence is overwhelming" that there was a connection between former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

Cheney told NBC News the relationship goes back to the early '90s, and includes a "series of high-level contacts" between Osama bin Laden and Iraqi intelligence officials. He says joint activities included training in bomb making and forging documents.

Mr. Bush was expected to make his case again Friday when he addressed U.S. troops at Fort Lewis, from which some 6,000 soldiers are deployed in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East.

"This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al Qaeda," Mr. Bush said Thursday after meeting with his Cabinet at the White House.

"We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. For example, Iraqi intelligence officers met with (Osama) bin Laden, the head of al Qaeda, in the Sudan. There's numerous contacts between the two," he said.

He appeared to get some help from Russian president Vladimir Putin Friday, who said Russia warned Washington before the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein's regime was preparing attacks against the United States and its interests abroad.

Putin said he couldn't comment on how critical the Russians' information was in U.S. decision to invade Iraq. However, he said the intelligence didn't cause Russia to waver from its firm opposition to the war.

"Indeed, after Sept. 11, 2001, and before the start of the military operation in Iraq, the Russian special services ... received information that officials from Saddam's regime were preparing terrorist attacks in the United States and outside it against the U.S. military and other interests," Putin said.

"Despite that information ... Russia's position on Iraq remains unchanged," Putin said in the Kazakh capital Astana after a regional economic and security summit.

Putin said Russia didn't have any information that Saddam's regime had actually been behind any terrorist acts.

Saddam's alleged link with terrorists was a central justification the Bush administration had for toppling the former Iraqi regime. Mr. Bush also argued that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, which have not been found, and that Saddam ruled his country with an iron fist and tortured his opponents, claims that no one has disputed.

"The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda is because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda," President Bush said.

The Sept. 11 panel reported this week that while there were contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq they did not appear to have produced "a collaborative relationship."

The report "establishes our conclusion that there was no participation of Iraq, at least we have no evidence of it, in the plot itself," former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a member of the panel, said Thursday on CBS News' The Early Show.

"But there is clear evidence that in years past, particularly when Osama and al Qaeda were in Sudan, there were contacts, there was an effort to cooperate in training in weapons particularly," said Lehman. "So it's a mixed picture."

"What we have found is, were there contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq? Yes. Some of them were shadowy but they were there," said Tom Kean, the Republican former governor of New Jersey, who is chairman.

Like President Bush, Kean said there was no evidence that Iraq aided in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, the Democratic vice chairman of the panel, said media reports of a conflict between the administration and the commission were "not that apparent to me."

Although bin Laden asked for help from Iraq in the mid-1990s, Saddam's government never responded, according to a report by the commission staff based on interviews with government intelligence and law enforcement officials.

"There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda also occurred after bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship," the commission's report said. "Two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq."

Mr. Bush said Saddam had ties to other terrorist networks as well.

"He (Saddam) was a threat because he was a sworn enemy to the United States of America, just like al Qaeda," the president said. "He was a threat because he had terrorist connections — not only al Qaeda connections, but other connections to terrorist organizations."

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