The Bush administration will present new evidence directly linking Saddam Hussein with the al Qaeda terrorist group to bolster the White House position that the United Nations should get "one last chance" to enforce its resolutions on Iraq, a senior official said yesterday.
U.N. inspectors yesterday declared they needed months to comb Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, but a slew of Bush officials countered with the message: Time is running out.
"This will not go on much longer," the senior administration official said. "This process is coming to a close."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said, "What we can't do is just keep kicking the can down the road."
Declaring that the administration has evidence of an al Qaeda-Iraq connection, Mr. Powell said, "The information that we can divulge in greater detail, we will be divulging in the days ahead."
The senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Powell will deliver fresh, "convincing" evidence of a connection between Saddam and the terrorist group after Friday's Camp David meeting between President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Mr. Bush will not offer the evidence in tonight's State of the Union address, and the White House yesterday was explicitly downplaying the role that Iraq would play in tonight's State of the Union address.
"Most of the State of the Union will not be about Iraq," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "Most of the State of the Union will be about improving America's economy and providing greater access to health care for millions of American people, including senior citizens."
Leading Republicans across the country received White House "talking points" memos telling them to emphasize Mr. Bush's plans for the economy, jobs, health care, religious social services and, lastly, Iraq.
Mr. Fleischer said yesterday that the president's speech would draw on "developing information" from the interrogation of captured al Qaeda operatives to spotlight ties between Saddam and Osama bin Laden, including chemical-weapons training, that pose "a very grave threat."
The senior administration official said the United States has proof that al Qaeda leaders have been going "in and out of Iraq" since U.S. forces annihilated the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Bush administration in recent days has begun to assert that Saddam and bin Laden's al Qaeda organization are working together on weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Fleischer said yesterday there have been contacts between "senior Iraqi officials and members of the al Qaeda organization going back for quite a long time. We know, too, that several of the detainees, particularly some of the high-level detainees, have said that Iraq provided some training to al Qaeda in chemical weapons development."
Meanwhile yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said the president has offered "rotating reasons" for the push toward war and needs to offer explicit proof of Iraq's noncompliance with U.N. resolutions.
"If we have proof of nuclear and biological weapons, why don't we show that proof to the world, as President Kennedy did 40 years ago when he sent Adlai Stevenson to the United Nations to show the world U.S. photographs of offensive missiles in Cuba," Mr. Daschle said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Marc Racicot dismissed the complaints as "blinded by political ambition and shallow opportunism" and suggested Mr. Daschle and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wait for the speech before criticizing it.
With weapons inspectors asking for more time, the Bush administration plans to pressure U.N. Security Council member nations to enforce Resolution 1441, which calls for "serious consequences" if Iraq fails to prove that it has disarmed, as required by cease-fire agreements in 1991.
The administration's strategy calls for agreement to possibly a few more weeks of inspections as Mr. Powell, U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte and other American diplomats lobby the 14 other members of the Security Council.
Mr. Powell said "we are getting closer and closer to the point where the Security Council is going to have to look at the options that it anticipated" when it passed Resolution 1441.
Inspectors have been in Iraq for eight weeks and have found just 16 of the 30,000 chemical warheads and chemical munitions in its possession at the end of the 1990s, as reported by the United Nations.
"At the pace that Iraq is cooperating with the inspectors, it will take the inspectors another almost 300 years to find the remaining weapons the United Nations says Saddam Hussein possesses," Mr. Fleischer said. "The more time they get, the more they're getting the runaround from Saddam Hussein."
The senior administration official said Iraq has no intention of cooperating with inspectors, so any extension of inspections would be futile.