Al-Qa'ida suspects deny links with Saddam

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The Independent US

President Bush has denied that American credibility has been damaged by the row over the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - even as intelligence officials undermined another of his administration's allegations against Saddam Hussein.

George Bush said time would reveal both that Iraq had a programme to develop weapons of mass destruction and that it had close links to al-Qa'ida. "Intelligence throughout the decade shows they had a weapons programme," the President told reporters.

"I am absolutely convinced that with time, we'll find out they did have a weapons programme," Mr Bush said.

But intelligence officials revealed the administration's claim of links between Iraq and al-Qa'ida had been denied by the two most senior members of the network being held in American custody. Officials said Abu Zubeida and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed have told their CIA interrogators that no such links existed.

Abu Zubeida, an al-Qa'ida operational planner and recruiter who was seized in March 2002, said Osama bin Laden had rejected any such alliance with Iraq because he did not want to be beholden to Saddam. Mr Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan in March and is believed to be the network's chief operational planner, also said there were no links between the network and the regime.

Officials told The New York Times that copies of Abu Zubeida's debriefing had been widely circulated within the US intelligence community last year - at the same time that administration officials were claiming that there were links between al-Qa'ida and Iraq.

Mr Bush often said the war against Iraq was part of the extended war on terror. "I remember reading the Abu Zubeida debriefing last year while the administration was talking about all of these other reports and thinking that they were only putting out what they wanted," said one intelligence official.

Weeks of searches in Iraq by military experts have so far failed to uncover any proof that the Iraqi regime had developed chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The CIA is already conducting a review of the intelligence that it gathered prior to the war and there are growing calls for a full Congressional inquiry. Senator Carl Levin, the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said: "I think that the nation's credibility is on the line, as well as [Mr Bush's]."

¿ Al-Qa'ida is likely to launch a chemical, biological or nuclear attack within two years, the US government said in a report to the UN made public yesterday. "Al-Qa'ida will continue to favour spectacular attacks but also may seek softer targets of opportunity such as banks, shopping malls, supermarkets and places of recreation and entertainment," the report said.

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