Iraq's role – if any – splits the US on possible action

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The Independent US

Splits are developing in the Bush administration over suspected Iraqi involvement in last week's attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre.

A growing body of intelligence experts, military planners and administration officials believes Iraqi intelligence played a role in the attacks. Their number includes Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Defence Secretary, and Lewis Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff.

They say Saddam Hussein, poses by far the most serious terrorist threat, citing fears that Iraq is continuing to develop biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in the absence of UN weapons inspectors.

Several more conservative cabinet members, contacted by US media, have alluded to unnamed foreign governments both harbouring terrorist groups and sponsoring their activities. Those cabinet members include John Ashcroft, who as Attorney General is co-ordinating the criminal investigation into the attacks, and Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary. But their view does not appear to be shared by Secretary of State Colin Powell's camp, which feels less certain of Iraq's involvement and worries about both the military and diplomatic consequences of waging a rerun of the Gulf War, at least at this stage.

Even beyond the Iraq issue, cabinet members have had disagreements behind the scenes over what military power, if any, to use, when to use it and who to use it against.

European diplomats returning from high-level talks in Washington said the White House was trying to find a compromise between the more hawkish leadership at the Pentagon and General Powell, who believes diplomatic pressure and intelligence-gathering are more important at this stage than military action.

Vice-President Cheney set a general tone of caution last Sunday when he said in a television interview that the administration had no evidence of Iraqi involvement, but that its policy against Saddam Hussein remained "fairly tough".

European diplomats said their impression was that, with the division between the two big offices of state, and US authorities emphasising their need for more intelligence on potential targets, military action may still be some way off.

"Colin Powell has a major role but the Pentagon takes a different position, with the White House rebalancing again," said one EU diplomat.

The hawks on Iraq argue that Sadaam Hussein has never stopped waging the Gulf War; that the mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre, Ramzi Yousef, was an Iraqi intelligence agent; that Osama bin Laden is working with the Iraqis; and that the Clinton administration fatally let down its guard in its belief that occasional air strikes would be sufficient to keep President Sadaam in check.

US newspapers reported that one of the suspected hijackers, Mohamed Atta, met an Iraqi intelligence operative in Europe earlier this year. The Iraqis deny any role in the attacks.

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