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Bush puts distance on a Hussein link to 9/11

WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday that the US government has no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, thereby undermining a claim that a majority of Americans believe is true.

Bush's statements, coming as criticism mounts that his administration was perpetuating an unfounded claim, take the administration a step away from comments Vice President Dick Cheney made during a nationally televised appearance on Sunday, when he said "we don't know" whether Hussein was connected to the attacks.

The president has called Iraq the "central front" in the US war on terrorism, launched in response to Sept. 11. And on May 1, after landing on an aircraft carrier and declaring that major military operations in Iraq were over, Bush said the United States had just "removed an ally of Al Qaeda."

But the president's remarks yesterday were the clearest to date on the question of whether Hussein was actually involved in the Sept. 11 attacks that Al Qaeda orchestrated.

"We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th," Bush told a group of reporters at the White House yesterday after discussing energy policy with congressional leaders and agreeing to answer media questions.

Bush administration officials have said Hussein's links to terrorists -- and the possibility that he could provide them with weapons of mass destruction -- were central elements behind the US decision to invade Iraq without waiting longer for United Nations approval.

And while terrorism specialists have consistently disputed any connection between Hussein and Sept. 11, administration officials have been accused of implicitly making the link to bolster the justification for going to war in Iraq.

According to a recent Washington Post poll, 69 percent of Americans believe that Hussein probably had a part in attacking the United States.

"This administration continues to not be able to talk straight about Iraq or any other issue," said Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, one of 10 Democratic candidates for president.

"[Bush's statement] conflicts with what his own vice president said this weekend and worsens a credibility gap with the American people and the world. Americans need to know that when a president speaks, he tells the truth," Kerry said.

Representative Edward J. Markey, the Malden Democrat who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, said: "The administration, in speech after speech, made it clear they thought there was a direct link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and, as a result, to what happened on 9/11. They have never produced any evidence to support linkages built up in the minds of many Americans."

Bush denied that his statement conflicts with the comments of his vice president. "What the vice president said was that [Hussein] has been involved with Al Qaeda," he said.

Bush cited the case of Jordanian Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a leader of an Islamic group in northern Iraq -- an area outside Hussein's control before the war -- that is believed to have links to Al Qaeda. "And Al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda operative, was in Baghdad. He's the guy that ordered the killing of a US diplomat. . . . There's no question that Saddam Hussein had Al Qaeda ties," Bush said.

On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was asked directly if he believes Hussein was involved with the attacks. "I've not seen any indication that would lead me to believe that I could say that," Rumsfeld responded. "We know of various other activities. But on that specific one, no." Cheney was asked a similar question on Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." After saying he "didn't know," Cheney elaborated, pointing out that administration officials, in the days after Sept. 11, denied any connection between the attacks and Hussein.

"Subsequent to that, we have learned a couple things," Cheney said.

"We learned more and more that there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the '90s," he said. "That it involved training, for example, on [biological and chemical weapons], that Al Qaeda sent personnel to Baghdad to get trained on the systems, and involved the Iraqis providing bomb-making expertise and advice to the Al Qaeda organization."

Wayne Washington can be reached at Globe correspondent Bryan Bender contributed to this report.

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