What We Knew in March, 2002


March 19: US says Iraq linked to al-Qaeda

Iraq has had contact with al-Qaeda and may be working with the group, the head of the CIA has told the US Senate.

"Baghdad has a long history of supporting terrorism," said George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

"It has also had contacts with al-Qaeda," he told the Senate's Armed Services Committee.

The comments come as the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, winds up an international tour aimed at building support for a possible attack against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, and as Iraqi officials try to shore up support in the region.

However, the prime minister of Turkey has said that Mr Cheney assured him there would be no operation against Iraq "in the near future" during a visit on Tuesday.

'United against US'

Mr Tenet did not present any new hard evidence of Iraqi collusion with al-Qaeda to the committee.

And he said the jury was out on whether Iraq had been involved in the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, blamed on al-Qaeda.

Co-operation between Iraq and al-Qaeda had previously been thought unlikely because of their different philosophies.

"Their ties may be limited by divergent ideologies, but the two sides' mutual antipathies toward the United States and the Saudi royal family suggests that tactical co-operation between them is possible," Mr Tenet said.

Build-up to attack

The CIA chief's comments are likely to be seen as providing further grounds for a potential US attack against the Iraqi regime.
He said that Saddam Hussein was "well aware" of the "serious consequences" which he could face for co-operation with al-Qaeda.

Mr Tenet also insisted that Iraq was continuing with its programme to produce weapons of mass destruction.

The BBC's Jon Leyne in Washington says that Mr Tenet's testimony is part of a US attempt to build up a picture of Iraq as a threat to the region.

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said, however, that Vice-President Cheney had "underlined that there will not be an operation against Iraq in the near future".

Mr Cheney was in Turkey on Tuesday on the final leg of his international tour.

Iraq on the offensive

Three senior Iraqi officials are touring the Gulf, north Africa, Yemen and Sudan to try to counter Mr Cheney's diplomatic mission in support of possible military action against Iraq.

There have also been indications that Iraq may allow UN weapons inspectors, who have been banned from Iraq since 1998, may be allowed to return, though under certain conditions.

On Tuesday Russia's Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, said he had not seen any factual evidence to show Iraq has nuclear weapons.

He said without evidence, claims about Iraq's arsenal were "empty words".

Al-Qaeda 'still threat'

Mr Tenet on Tuesday also stressed that al-Qaeda continued to pose a threat to the United States.

"Al-Qaeda leaders still at large are working to reconstitute the organisation and to resume its terrorist operations," he said.

Mr Tenet said the arrests of hundreds of terror suspects around the world had foiled planned attacks.

But despite the massive US military offensive in Afghanistan, he said pockets of militants remained in the border area with Pakistan.