Rumsfeld accuses Iran of taking in al-Qa'ida chiefs

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Donald Rumsfeld, the American Secretary of Defence, has accused Iran of giving refuge to senior al-Qa'ida and Taliban commanders fleeing allied action in Afghanistan.

His comments came as he and other US officials were striving to back up an assertion made last week by President George Bush that Iran, Iraq and North Korea together formed an "axis of evil" that threatened peace in the West.

Among those defending the foreign policy passages of the President's annual State of the Union address to Congress was Colin Powell, the Secretary of State. "I saw the speech before it was delivered ... and I fully supported that line," he said.

Even some of America's closest allies, including Britain, have voiced some anxiety at the harshness of President Bush's verbal assault on the three countries. Yesterday, Russia accused Washington of using double standards in its view of the world. While Moscow has been criticised for seeking closer economic and political links with both Iraq and Iran, it has noted that the West was less than emphatic in condemning Chechen terror attacks when they were committed against Russian targets.

Sergei Ivanov, Russia's Defence Minister, told a conference in Munich: "Not many people in the West like the fact that we have some commercial ties with the countries which you describe as rogue states. "Well, we don't like ... some of your allies like Saudi Arabia or Gulf states who give finance to terrorist organisations."

Mr Rumsfeld said he was backing up a report in Time magazine due out this morning suggesting that Tehran gave comfort and shelter to more than 250 al-Qa'ida and Taliban leaders who crossed the border from Afghanistan into Iran during November.

Mr Rumsfeld said: "We have any number of reports that Iran has been permissive and allowed transit through their country of al-Qa'ida.

"There isn't any doubt in my mind but that the porous border between Iran and Afghanistan has been used for al-Qa'ida and Taliban to move into Iran and find refuge."

Separately, President Bush's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, suggested Iran had also been working to destabilise the interim government that is now just getting to work in Afghanistan. America was worried, she said, about possible "Iranian attempts to surreptitiously influence Afghan politics at a very delicate time".

Ms Rice similarly sought to douse the diplomatic brush fire started by President Bush in his speech last week. She said: "I would say to everyone, let's step back here, and instead of worrying so much about what the president said on Tuesday night, let's put equal energy into working to make sure that these regimes don't get these weapons of mass destruction."

General Powell acknowledged that Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar were still missing. He said: "We don't know where Mullah Omar is and we don't know where Osama bin Laden is, but we know they are hiding and they are on the run. When you're hiding and on the run, you're not doing a very good job of being in charge of anything."

Meanwhile, fans attending the Super Bowl, the cup final of American football, in New Orleans, yesterday were subject to tight security. Officials even used air testers to ensure there were no biological attacks.