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Bush Disputes Al Qaida-Saddam Conclusion
By DEB RIECHMANN=
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush on Thursday disputed the Sept. 11 commission's finding that there was no ``collaborative relationship'' between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaida terrorist network responsible for the attacks.
``There was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida,'' Bush insisted following a meeting with his Cabinet at the White House.
``This administration never said that the 9-11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al-Qaida,'' he said.
``We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, for example, Iraqi intelligence agents met with (Osama) bin Laden, the head of al-Qaida in the Sudan.''
The independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks said Wednesday that no evidence exists that al-Qaida had strong ties to Saddam Hussein - a central justification the Bush administration had for toppling the former Iraqi regime. Bush also argued that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, which have not been found, and that he ruled his country by with an iron fist and tortured political opponents.
Senior members of the commission seemed eager to minimize any disagreement.
``What we have found is, were there contacts between al-Qaida 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 Bush, he said there was no evidence that Iraq aided in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, 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-Qaida also occurred after bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship,'' the report said. ``Two senior Bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al-Qaida and Iraq.''
Bush said Saddam was a threat because he had not only ties to al-Qaida, but to other terrorist networks as well.
``He was a threat because he provided safe haven for a terrorist like al-Zarqawi who is still killing innocents inside Iraq,'' he said, referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is considered the most dangerous foreign fighter in Iraq and one of the world's top terrorists.
Attention on al-Zarqawi has increased in recent months as he became a more vocal terror figure, due in part to three recordings released on the Internet, including the video showing the beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg. The State Department and other agencies that handle counterterrorism are considering raising the reward for al-Zarqawi from $10 million to $25 million, putting him on par with two al-Qaida leaders and Saddam, now jailed.
``The world is better off and America is more secure without Saddam Hussein in power,'' Bush told reporters in the Cabinet Room where he met with his advisers to discuss Iraq and the economy.
It was Bush's 25th meeting with the Cabinet since the start of his presidency in January 2001.
Bush said he told Cabinet members that he continues to have a ``firm resolve'' in Iraq, the scene of escalating violence less than two weeks before the handoff of political power to the interim Iraqi government.
On Thursday, a sport utility vehicle packed with artillery shells blew up in a crowd of people waiting to volunteer for the Iraqi military, killing dozens and wounding over a hundred. Another car bomb north of the capital killed several members of the Iraqi security forces.
``We fully understand terrorists who try to shake our will, who try to shake our confidence to try to get us to withdraw from commitments we have made in places like Afghanistan and Iraq,'' Bush said. ``They won't succeed. Iraq will be free. And a free Iraq is in our nation's interest.''
Asked whether he was disappointed that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had improperly held an Iraqi prisoner in secret for more than seven months in violation of the Geneva Conventions, Bush replied: ``The secretary and I discussed that for the first time this morning. ... I'm never disappointed in my secretary of defense. He's doing a fabulous job and America's lucky to have him in the position he's in.''
This is all well and good, but Bush never said that Saddam was involved in 9/11, simply that Saddam and Al Qaida were linked, which is undisputably true.