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Cheney revives Iraq assertions

Says evidence shows Qaeda tie, weapons

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Dick Cheney revived two controversial assertions about the war in Iraq yesterday, declaring there is "overwhelming evidence" that Saddam Hussein had a relationship with Al Qaeda and that two trailers discovered after the war are proof of Iraq's biological weapons programs.

The vice president stood by positions that others in the administration have largely abandoned in recent months, as preliminary analysis of the trailers has been called into question and new evidence -- including a document found with Hussein when he was captured -- cast doubt on theories that Iraq and Al Qaeda collaborated.

Cheney's comments were seen as stoking new controversy over Iraq just as the vice president is embarking on a trip to an economic summit in Switzerland and meetings with European officials, some of them fierce opponents of the war who have been dismissive of US claims about the threat posed by Iraq.

Cheney has consistently espoused the most hawkish views among senior administration officials. His statements yesterday suggest he intends to maintain that tone as he takes a more high-profile role in President Bush's re-election campaign.

"There's overwhelming evidence there was a connection between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government," Cheney said in an interview on National Public Radio. "I am very confident that there was an established relationship there."

That assertion seemed at odds with the recent words of other senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who said in an interview earlier this month that he had "not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence" of connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

Danielle Pletka, an analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, defended Cheney's comments, saying he referred only to a "relationship" between Iraq and Al Qaeda. "Nobody has ever said Saddam directed Al Qaeda in attacks," Pletka said. "But it is clear that had he decided to do so at any point it would have been easy."

But members of Congress and some in the intelligence community said yesterday that Cheney's comments lead the public to believe there was collaboration between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and that that is not supported by the evidence.

US intelligence officials agree that there were contacts between Hussein's agents and Al Qaeda dating back a decade, and that certain operatives with ties to Al Qaeda have found safe haven at various times in Iraq. But no intelligence has surfaced to suggest a deeper relationship, and other information turned up recently has suggested that any significant ties were unlikely.

Captured Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has told American interrogators that Al Qaeda rejected the idea of any working relationship with Iraq, -- which was seen by the network as a corrupt, secular regime. When Hussein was captured last month, he was found with a document warning his supporters to be wary of working with foreign fighters.

"There's nothing I have seen or read that backs [Cheney] up," said Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West Virginia and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He called Cheney's remarks "perplexing."

Cheney also argued that the main thrust of the administration's case for war -- the claim that Iraq was assembling weapons of mass destruction -- has been validated by the discovery of two flat-bed trailers outfitted with tanks and other equipment.

"We've found a couple of semi-trailers at this point which we believe were in fact part of [a WMD] program," Cheney said. "I would deem that conclusive evidence, if you will, that he did in fact have programs for weapons of mass destruction."

That view is at odds with the judgment of the government's lead weapons inspector, David Kay.

In an interim report last October Kay said that "we have not yet been able to corroborate the existence of a mobile biological weapons production effort."

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