Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday accused Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein of harboring al Qaeda terrorists and aiding their quest for weapons of mass destruction.
His charges, based on "evolving" intelligence reports, marked the Bush administration's most detailed account of links between Baghdad and al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's terror group that carried out the September 11 attacks.
"We do have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad," the defense secretary said. "We have what we consider to be credible contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire weapons of mass destruction capabilities."
Mr. Rumsfeld's presentation at a Pentagon news conference came the day after White House National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice disclosed for the first time an intelligence report that said Iraq helped train al Qaeda members to use chemical weapons.
Her words were reiterated yesterday by White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. "Al Qaeda and Iraq are too close for comfort," he said.
The back-to-back disclosures were part of a new White House push to tie Saddam's regime to al Qaeda. If the White House can convince the public that Iraq helps the group that attacked America and killed more than 3,000 persons, the link would strengthen the case for a U.S.-led attack on Iraq.
Until the past two days, the White House, and chief ally Great Britain, have focused on Baghdad's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction as justification for a pre-emptive attack and the establishment of a new Iraqi government.
President Bush is contemplating an invasion but has not yet made a decision or approved a specific war plan, his aides say.
Since shortly after September 11, Pentagon civilian hard-liners have pushed the CIA and other intelligence agencies to find and document ties between Iraq and Baghdad. The "linkage" issue was resisted at first by some in the CIA. But Mr. Rumsfeld's aides persisted, and intelligence reports were produced establishing links.
"The knowledge that the intelligence community has of the al Qaeda relationship with Iraq is evolving," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "It's based on a lot of different types of sources of varying degrees of reliability. Some of it, admittedly, comes from detainees, which has been helpful, and particularly some high-ranking detainees."
Said Miss Rice, "This is a story that is unfolding, and it is getting clear, and we're learning more. We're learning more because we have a lot of detainees who are able to fill in pieces of the puzzle. And when the picture is clear, we'll make full disclosure about it."
Mr. Rumsfeld said he had asked the intelligence community to declassify some aspects of the reported Iraq-al Qaeda ties. Upon his return to the Pentagon from a NATO conference in Poland this week, a report was awaiting that detailed links in an unclassified form.
The thrust of the administration's case during the past two days is based on:
•"Very reliable reporting" of senior-level contacts between al Qaeda and Baghdad going back a decade and occurring recently.
•Unidentified al Qaeda detainees and other sources, who say Iraq helped al Qaeda in its quest to acquire weapons of mass destruction and aided training in those weapons.
•Discussions by Iraq to provide a haven to al Qaeda members on the run, some of whom already have "found refuge" there.
"We know that several of the detainees, in particular some high-ranking detainees, have said that Iraq provided some training to al Qaeda in chemical-weapons development," Miss Rice said Wednesday night on PBS.
"No one is trying to make an argument at this point that Saddam Hussein somehow had operational control of what happened on September 11, so we don't want to push this too far," she said.
Earlier yesterday, allied aircraft carried out two strikes against air-defense targets in southern Iraq. Both targets threatened pilots enforcing a no-fly zone south of Baghdad, the Pentagon said.
Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said pilots used precision-guided munitions to bomb a facility 80 miles south of Baghdad and a target-acquisition radar at a military-civilian airport at the port city of Basra.
"The radar site that was struck was on the military side of the field and, in fact, way off the end of the military side of the field," Gen. Pace said, rebutting Iraqi assertions that civilians were killed. "When you take a look at the picture of this, it is out in, basically, desert."
This summer, Mr. Rumsfeld authorized commanders to not only bomb air-defense targets that directly threatened pilots, but also command centers that support missile and radar sites. Military sources say the attacks will better prepare the battlefield for a war against Iraq.
The Washington Times quoted a U.S. official in 1996 as saying bin Laden was in contact with Iraqi intelligence agents while based near Khartoum, Sudan. He had also reportedly contacted Iranian intelligence officers in Afghanistan about seeking political asylum.