Defiant Bush and Blair insist Saddam had al-Qa'ida links

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The Independent US

President George Bush and the Prime Minister's Office yesterday defied the independent US commission on 11 September and insisted that there were links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida.

The report by the commission on Wednesday dealt a devastating blow to the credibility to one of President Bush's reasons for going to war against Iraq by finding there was no credible evidence linking Saddam's regime to Osama bin Laden's terrorist organisation.

In a carefully co-ordinated riposte to the commission, London and Washington both insisted that Saddam had allowed al-Qa'ida to operate inside Iraq before the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US.

"The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al-Qa'ida is because there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qa'ida," Mr Bush said. "This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al-Qa'ida. We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida."

A few hours earlier, Tony Blair insisted that Saddam had created "a permissive environment" for terrorists and al-Qa'ida operatives in Iraq.

"The Prime Minister has always said Saddam created a permissive environment for terrorism and we know that the people affiliated to al-Qa'ida operated in Iraq," said a spokesman for Mr Blair. "The Prime Minister always made it clear that Saddam's was a rogue state which threatened the security of the region and the world."

In contrast to the US administration, Tony Blair has carefully avoided claims that Saddam was involved in the 11 September attacks. Even the so-called "dodgy dossier'' avoided making such a claim.

Challenged by The Independent, the Downing Street spokesman said the Government was not claiming a direct link between the attackers on 11 September and Saddam, but insisted there was evidence that Saddam had created a "permissive regime" in which al-Qa'ida could operate.

Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, also refused to back down. He told al-Jazeera television there was a connection between Iraq and al-Qa'ida. "We have seen these connections ... and we stick to that," he said. "We have not said it was related to 9/11."

The link was a key factor in President Bush's justification for the war. But it did not play a part in Mr Blair's argument for action, which rested entirely on Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction.

In a further embarrassment for the Bush administration yesterday, the independent commission reported that America's defence forces failed to respond quickly enough on the morning of 11 September.

The ensuing chaos and miscommunications caused a crucial delay in relaying orders for the planes to be intercepted and shot down.

"On the morning of 9/11, the existing protocol was unsuited in every respect for what was about to happen," the report asserted. "What ensued was a hurried attempt to create an improvised defence by officials who had never encountered or trained against the situation they faced."

Such was the lack of coordination between air traffic controllers, military officials and senior members of the government, that when Mr Cheney, the Vice-President, finally authorised shooting down the planes they had already hit their targets. Yet, Mr Cheney briefly believed that two of the planes had in fact been shot down.

"It's my understanding that they've already taken a couple of aircraft out," Mr Cheney told the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, in a telephone conversation, the transcript of which was released last night.

The panel also played segments of tapes carrying portions of other conversations from that day. One apparently carried words spoken by Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the hijackers, while he was at the controls of American Airlines flight 11, which took off from Boston and was the first plane to strike the World Trade Centre.

"We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you'll be OK. We are returning to the airport," Atta is heard telling the passengers. Later he warns: "If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane."

The commission held its final public hearing yesterday on the terror strikes before issuing a complete and final report next month.

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