WASHINGTON -- President Bush yesterday defended Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion this week that Saddam Hussein had longstanding ties with Al Qaeda, even as critics charged that the White House had no new proof of a connection.
At a news conference with Afghan president Hamid Karzai, Bush stood by his vice president, saying Hussein ''had ties to terrorist organizations," though he did not specifically mention Al Qaeda.
''I look forward to the debates where people are saying, 'Oh gosh, the world would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power,' " Bush said.
Bush has previously said there was ''no evidence" linking Hussein to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but he and other members of his administration have continued to say they believe there were ties between Hussein and Al Qaeda. In a speech to the conservative Madison Institute in Orlando on Monday, Cheney called Hussein ''a patron of terrorism" and said ''he had long established ties with Al Qaeda."
An April poll by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes found that 57 percent of Americans surveyed believed that Iraq was helping Al Qaeda before the war, including 20 percent who believed Iraq was linked to the Sept. 11 attacks.
However, a former top weapons inspector said yesterday he and other investigators have not found evidence of a Hussein-Al Qaeda link.
''At various times Al Qaeda people came through Baghdad and in some cases resided there," said David Kay, former head of the CIA's Iraq Survey Group, which searched for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and links to terrorism. ''But we simply did not find any evidence of extensive links with Al Qaeda, or for that matter any real links at all."
''Cheney's speech is evidence-free," Kay said. ''It is an assertion, but doesn't say why we should be believe this now."
Cheney's comments Monday echoed a January interview with National Public Radio in which he said, ''There's overwhelming evidence there was a connection between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government. I am very confident that there was an established relationship there."
Cheney's continued assertions are stronger than a statement made earlier this year by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who said ''I have not seen smoking gun, concrete evidence about the connection," while adding that ''the possibility of such connections did exist."
Cheney's statement comes amid questions about whether the Bush administration used faulty or misleading intelligence in saying that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which was a justification for Bush's decision to go to war against Iraq.
In recent weeks, Powell has apologized for at least two lapses regarding information about Iraq and terrorism. In a recent appearance NBC-TV's ''Meet The Press," Powell said that he had relied on faulty intelligence when he told the United Nations in 2003 that Iraq had biological weapons labs. ''It turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and in some cases, deliberately misleading," Powell said.
Separately, Powell on Sunday said that a State Department report was mistaken in saying that terrorism events had dropped in the past three years. Blaming faulty statistics, Powell said the report was ''very embarrassing."
Last September, Bush said there was no proven link between the Sept. 11 attacks and Hussein. ''We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th," Bush said, responding to questions at the time about a statement by Cheney that ''we don't know" if there was such a link to the terror attacks.
Whether Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction at the time of the US-led invasion and whether he had ties to Al Qaeda have become issues in the presidential campaign.
Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic presidential campaign of Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, said Cheney's comment Monday was the latest in a series of misleading statements.
''In just the last week, the Bush Administration claimed that terrorist attacks were at their lowest levels since 1969, only to reverse itself when independent researchers showed that attacks are at their highest levels in 20 years," Singer said. ''Now it's trying to link Saddam and Al Qaeda."
When Bush was asked by reporters yesterday about Cheney's allegation, the president responded that continuing terrorist attacks in Iraq provide the best evidence that Iraq supported Al Qaeda. He cited Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian described by administration officials before the war as an Al Qaeda facilitator who is believed to be responsible for killing hundreds in terrorist attacks in the last year.
A purported letter from Zarqawi to Al Qaeda leaders, intercepted earlier this year by the US military in Iraq, was viewed as a plea for more assistance from the international terrorist network.
''Zarqawi's the best evidence of a connection to Al Qaeda affiliates and Al Qaeda," Bush said. ''He's the person who's still killing. He's the person -- remember the e-mail exchange between Al Qaeda leadership and he himself about how to disrupt the progress toward freedom? Saddam Hussein also had ties to terrorist organizations as well."
Before the war, intelligence officials said, Zarqawi was operating with the Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group Ansar Al Islam in Kurdish-held northern Iraq, not in territory under the control of Hussein's regime. Thus, questions have been raised about whether Zarqawi was working in concert with Hussein before the US invaded Iraq.
Since the toppling of Hussein, however, debate over the Iraq-Al Qaeda relationship has not abated. A recent book, ''The Connection: How Al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America," by Stephen Hayes, has stirred the debate anew.
Hayes cites communications between Iraqi intelligence and Ansar Al Islam discussing possible financial support, as well as the discovery in February on a roster of the Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary force of a Lieutenant Colonel Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, the same name as an Iraqi believed to have helped plan a key Al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia in 2000 that sketched out the 9/11 plot.