Rice: Iraq trained al Qaeda in chemical weapons
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush's national security adviser Wednesday said Saddam Hussein has sheltered al Qaeda terrorists in Baghdad and helped train some in chemical weapons development -- information she said has been gleaned from captives in the ongoing war on terrorism.
The comments by Condoleezza Rice were the strongest and most specific to date on the White House's accusations linking al Qaeda and Iraq.
The accusations followed those made by President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who earlier in the day said the United States has evidence linking Iraq and al Qaeda, but they did not elaborate. And the charges came as the White House sought to dispel accusations by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who blasted the administration for an "outrageous" effort to seek political gain from the Iraq debate.
Meanwhile, President Bush will meet with House Democrats and Republicans this morning at the White House to specifically discuss Iraq. Bush is expected to speak in the Rose Garden immediately following the meeting.
In an interview with PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," Rice said the U.S. government clearly knows "that there were in the past and have been contacts between senior Iraqi officials and members of al Qaeda going back for actually quite a long time."
"We know too 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," Rice said.
"So, yes, there are contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda. We know that Saddam Hussein has a long history with terrorism in general. And there are some al Qaeda personnel who found refuge in Baghdad," she said. "There clearly are contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq that can be documented."
At the same time, she cautioned that "no one is trying to make an argument at this point that Saddam Hussein somehow had operational control of what happened on September 11th, so we don't want to push this too far."
Rice added: "This is a story that is unfolding, and it is getting clear, and we're learning more. ... When the picture is clear, we'll make full disclosure about it."
With the administration trying to build support at the United Nations and in Congress for possible military action against Iraq, the White House in recent days has sought to place its push to depose Saddam in the context of the war on terrorism, warning that Iraq could give nuclear, biological or chemical weapons to terrorist groups like al Qaeda -- the group responsible for the deaths of more than 3,000 Americans in four attacks September 11, 2001.
Bush Wednesday warned that al Qaeda could become "an extension of Saddam's madness."
"Both of them need to be dealt with," Bush told reporters at the White House. "You can't distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror."
Seeking to fend off criticism from Democrats, he called the Iraq issue "a legitimate national security concern."
"I view it as my main obligation -- that is to protect the American people," he said.
Speaking in Poland, Rumsfeld said U.S. officials shared information linking Iraq and al Qaeda with NATO defense ministers meeting in Warsaw.
"The deputy director of central intelligence briefed on that subject. I have no desire to go beyond saying the answer is yes," Rumsfeld told reporters.
Daschle blasts White House
Daschle accused the White House of exploiting the threat of war with Iraq for political gain and demanded that Bush apologize.
"We've got to rise to a higher level," Daschle said. "Our founding fathers would be embarrassed by what they are seeing going on right now. Those who died gave their lives for better than what we're giving now." (Full story)
Rumsfeld told the allies that Bush has made no decision on whether to attack, but argued that a decade of sanctions and occasional aerial bombardment has failed to deter Iraq from attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction.
"Everyone is on notice," he said. "All now have a clear understanding of the threats that are posed."
The White House quickly dismissed the demand for Bush to apologize.
Asked by reporters at the White House whether he was politicizing the war, Bush responded, "My job is to protect the American people."
At a fund-raising dinner later Wednesday evening for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the president seemed to respond to Daschle's comments.
"Unfortunately, some senators -- not all senators -- but some senators believe it is best to micromanage the process, believe the best way to secure the homeland is to have a thick book of regulations which will hamstring this administration and future administrations from dealing with an enemy that could care less about thick books of regulations," Bush said.
"Unfortunately, some in the Senate -- not all in the Senate -- want to take away the power that all presidents have had since Jimmy Carter, and I'm not going to stand for it."
"The Senate must hear this, because the American people understand it -- they should not respond to special interests in Washington, D.C. They ought to respond to this interest: protecting the American people from future attacks," he added.
In the PBS interview, Rice said, "The president has never politicized this concern about war and the national security of the American people."