WASHINGTON - President Bush distanced himself on Wednesday from comments by Vice President Dick Cheney that left the impression he saw a possible link between Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
"We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved in Sept. 11," Bush told reporters as he met members of Congress on energy legislation.
Democrats have accused the administration of creating the "false impression" at the heart of a widespread belief held by Americans that Saddam had a personal role in the attacks.
US President George W. Bush said that there was no proof tying Saddam Hussein to the September 11 attacks, as his case for war with Iraq drew increasing scrutiny and mounting criticism. (AFP/File/Luke Frazza)
A recent poll by the Washington Post said 69 percent of Americans believed there was a Saddam link to the Sept. 11 attacks although no evidence of such a link has surfaced.
Cheney, interviewed on Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," left open the possibility of a Saddam link to the attacks.
Cheney said on Sunday "It's not surprising" the public would believe Saddam was involved in the attacks, blamed on the al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden, who has repeatedly praised the attacks.
"We don't know," Cheney said. "We've learned a couple of things. 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."
Bush said Cheney was right about suspicions of an Iraq-al Qaeda link, citing the case of Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi, a leader of an Islamic group in northern Iraq called Ansar al-Islam believed to have links to al Qaeda.
The United States believes Zarqawi received medical treatment in Baghdad and helped orchestrate the assassination of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan.
"There's no question that Saddam Hussein had al Qaeda ties," Bush said.
'CENTRAL FRONT' IN TERROR WAR
Despite distancing himself from part of what Cheney said, Bush frequently suggested in speeches in the run-up to war that there was a link between Iraq and al Qaeda, warning that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction could fall into the wrong hands. To date, no weapons have been found.
In recent speeches, he has called Iraq the "central front" in the war on terror, saying U.S. occupation forces face "a foreign element" as well as Saddam loyalists.
But the U.S. authorities have yet to produce any foreigners known to have participated in any recent military operation.
At the White House on Wednesday, Bush held a National Security Council meeting with his top foreign policy and military advisers and discussed Iraq.
The United States is searching for a compromise with France and other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on a new U.N. resolution that would create a multinational force for Iraq and set up a pathway to Iraqi sovereignty.
Bush is to address the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 23 but U.S. officials said this was not seen at the White House as a deadline for a new U.N. resolution.
France said on Tuesday it wanted fast international recognition of Iraqi sovereignty but accepted that it could take time before a full hand over of power from U.S. military forces was possible.
U.S. officials are rewriting the resolution in order to take account of the concerns of members of the U.N. Security Council.
"We're still talking about it," Bush said. "The key is to make sure that the political situation in Iraq evolves in a way that will lead to a free society."
Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd