White House presses Iraq-al Qaeda link
Iraq denies connection
From John King
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush gave congressional leaders a classified briefing Wednesday on plans for a possible war with Iraq as the administration argued that a new audiotape purportedly by Osama bin Laden proves a relationship between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda.
"This is the nightmare that people have warned about, linking up Iraq with al Qaeda," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters.
Fleischer said the tape, broadcast Tuesday on the Qatar-based, Arabic language TV news network Al-Jazeera, bolstered the administration's case that Iraq could share chemical or biological weapons with a terror network said to be planning new attacks on the United States and its allies.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan Wednesday denied his government has any links with al Qaeda, saying not "one Iraqi citizen" was involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks.
"I think that this subject, although a dangerous one to comment on, is not worth addressing," Ramadan said in an interview on Lebanese television, calling Bush "the No. 1 liar."
Fleischer said U.S. analysts have not conclusively determined that it is bin Laden's voice on the tape but said they were operating under the assumption that the recording is authentic. Other U.S. sources also have said an initial analysis indicates the al Qaeda leader is speaking on the tape.
Many analysts who have listened to the tape said they view it as an effort by bin Laden to exploit the standoff between Iraq and the United States and to voice solidarity with the Iraqi people -- not the country's leadership.
But Fleischer said history is rich with examples of unlikely alliances. He specifically mentioned the nonaggression pact between Hitler and Stalin and said bin Laden mentions on the tape that despite his past criticism of the Iraqi regime it is in Muslims' interests to join the fight against the United States at this time.
"The world cannot afford to be in denial," Fleischer said.
The administration views the tape as more evidence that Iraq's weapons programs must be dismantled.
Whether it can sell its case to the U.N. Security Council remains an open question.
Rice confers with chief U.N. weapons inspector
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice met Tuesday with chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix in New York, and several officials said she told Blix it was incumbent to detail how Iraq has failed to cooperate fully with inspectors and to disclose what happened to its known weapons stockpiles.
One official described the sessions as "polite but tough." Fleischer said Rice stressed that when Blix reports to the Security Council on Friday, "it is important that his report be a statement of the facts."
The United States and Great Britain want the council to move quickly from the Blix report to a new resolution. Discussions include the possibility of a resolution explicitly backing the use of military force, but continuing objections from France, Russia and others make such language less of a likelihood, senior U.S. officials concede.
Instead, a leading option now is for a resolution that makes no new explicit statement about force but does declare Iraq in continuing material breach of its commitments under Security Council Resolution 1441.
The United States then would argue that the resolution calls for immediate and full compliance by Iraq and that its continued "breach" clears the way for military action.
"Some call that the minimalist approach -- just a statement of breach in the context of the existing resolutions," one official involved in the discussions said. "There will be a lot of back and forth in the next several days, but I would not dissuade you from keeping that approach as a leading option."
The briefing of Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress came at a weekly White House breakfast. Aides offered few details but said Bush and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card offered a classified briefing on developments in Iraq, the coming U.N. debate and the situation in North Korea.
After the congressional meeting, Bush attended a regularly scheduled meeting of his National Security Council.