The US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a speech that he knew of no clear link between the al-Qa'ida terror network and Saddam Hussein, although he later backed off the statement and said he was misunderstood.
Asked to describe the connection between the former Iraqi leader and the al-Qa'ida terror network at an appearance yesterday at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Pentagon chief first refused to answer, then said: "To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two."
Several hours after his appearance, Rumsfeld issued a statement from the Pentagon saying his comment "regrettably was misunderstood" by some. He said he has said since September 2002 that there were ties between Osama bin Laden's terror group and Iraq.
"This assessment was based upon points provided to me by then-CIA Director George Tenet to describe the CIA's understanding of the al-Qa'ida relationship," he said. This included "solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al-Qa'ida members, including some that have been in Baghdad," he said.
In his New York remarks, Rumsfeld said he had seen intelligence on the Saddam-al-Qa'ida question "migrate in amazing ways" in the past year, adding that there were "many differences of opinion in the intelligence community." He did not elaborate on that but said relationships among terrorists "evolve and change over time."
On whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the war, Rumsfeld told the New York audience flatly that intelligence about such weapons before the invasion was faulty - a markedly different statement than what he told a television interviewer just a day earlier.
"It turns out that we have not found weapons of mass destruction," Rumsfeld said Monday in the speech. "Why the intelligence proved wrong I'm not in a position to say, but the world is a lot better off with Saddam Hussein in jail."
In an interview aired Sunday on the Fox News Channel, Rumsfeld had said he believed Saddam, the deposed Iraqi president, had weapons of mass destruction before the war, and the truth may unfold over months or years.
"I believe they were there, and I'm surprised we have not found them yet," Rumsfeld said in the Fox interview. "He has either hidden them so well or moved them somewhere else, or decided to destroy them... in event of a conflict but kept the capability of developing them rapidly."
Rumsfeld also said he does not expect civil war in Iraq and pointed to the recent retaking of the former insurgent stronghold of Samarra as evidence of progress in stabilizing the country before elections in January.
"I don't think it's going to happen," Rumsfeld said. "But what has to be done in that country is what basically was done in Samarra over the last 48 hours."
Rumsfeld credited a process of first trying diplomacy, then threatening force and finally using it.
In response to other questions, Rumsfeld said Iran was engaged in "a lot of meddling" in Iraq, and Syria has been "notably unhelpful" by refusing to release frozen Iraqi assets and by allowing foreign terrorist movements across its border with Iraq.