US President George W. Bush, having repeatedly linked Saddam Hussein to the terrorist organization behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said yesterday there is no evidence that the deposed Iraqi leader had a hand in those attacks, in contrast to the belief of most Americans.
The president's comments came in response to a reporter's question about Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion yesterday on NBC's Meet The Press program that Iraq was the "geographic base" of the terrorists behind the attacks on New York and Washington.
Bush said yesterday there was no attempt by the administration to try to confuse people about any link between Saddam and Sept. 11.
"No, we've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th," Bush said. "What the vice president said was is that he [Saddam] has been involved with al-Qaeda.
"And al-Zarqawi, an al-Qaeda operative, was in Baghdad. He's the guy that ordered the killing of a US diplomat. ... There's no question that Saddam Hussein had al-Qaeda ties."
Most of the administration's public assertions have focused on the man Bush mentioned, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a senior Osama bin Laden associate whom officials have accused of trying to train terrorists in the use of poison for possible attacks in Europe, running a terrorist haven in northern Iraq -- an area outside Saddam's control -- and organizing an attack that killed an American aid executive in Jordan last year.
Security analysts, however, say al-Zarqawi made his way to Iraq, where his leg was amputated. Unconfirmed reports claim he then visited northern Iraq, where a militant Islamic group affiliated with al-Qaeda is encamped not far from the border with Iran.
The group, however, far from being an ally of Saddam, sought to replace his secular government with an Islamic regime.
A senior intelligence official, who asked not to be identified, said the information linking the group, Ansar al Islam, to Saddam comes "almost exclusively from defectors produced by the Iraqi opposition. They are not uniformly credible."
Bush's statement was the latest in a series by administration officials this week that appeared to distance the White House from the widely held public perception that Saddam was a key figure in the attacks.
Publicly, at least, Bush has not explicitly blamed the attacks on Saddam. In speech after speech, however, the president has strongly linked Saddam and al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization of bin Laden, the renegade Saudi whose followers hijacked jetliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania.
In his May 1 declaration of military victory in Iraq from the deck of the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, Bush said, "We have removed an ally of al-Qaeda and cut off a source of terrorist funding."
He also said, "The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror.
"We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction."