Bush stands by al Qaeda, Saddam link
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush repeated his administration's claim that Iraq was in league with al Qaeda under Saddam Hussein's rule, saying Tuesday that fugitive Islamic militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi ties Saddam to the terrorist network.
"Zarqawi's the best evidence of a connection to al Qaeda affiliates and al Qaeda," Bush told reporters at the White House. "He's the person who's still killing."
U.S. intelligence officials have said al Qaeda had some links to Iraq dating back to the early 1990s, but the nature and extent of those contacts is a matter of dispute.
Critics have accused the president and other administration officials of falsely inflating the links between Iraq and al Qaeda in the months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Vice President Dick Cheney, in a speech Monday in Florida, raised eyebrows by reasserting claims that Saddam "had long-established ties with al Qaeda."
Bush said Tuesday that Saddam also had ties to Palestinian militant groups and was making payments to the families of suicide bombers in Israel.
"We did the absolute right thing in removing him from power, and the world is better off with him not in power," he said.
Bush has tried to portray the war in Iraq as the "central front" in the war on terrorism that began with al Qaeda's September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
In September, after Cheney asserted that Iraq had been "the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11," Bush acknowledged there was no evidence that Saddam's government was connected to those attacks.
U.S. officials blame Zarqawi for a series of attacks on U.S. forces, Iraqi civilians and others since the American-led invasion of Iraq, including the April beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg and the August 2003 bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.
Before the invasion, U.S. intelligence reports suggested Zarqawi had his leg amputated in a Baghdad hospital after being wounded fighting American forces in Afghanistan. The allegation was part of Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003, laying out the U.S. case for war.
But in April, a senior U.S. official said that report had been called into question: Zarqawi was still thought to have received medical treatment in Baghdad, but reports that he had his leg amputated appeared to have been incorrect, a U.S. official said.
Earlier this year, U.S. officials touted what they said was an intercepted letter from Zarqawi to al Qaeda leaders seeking their help in provoking a civil war in Iraq, where the U.S.-led occupation authority is scheduled to hand over power to an interim Iraqi government at month's end.
The principal reason cited for the coalition invasion was that Iraq was violating U.N. resolutions requiring it to give up chemical and biological weapons, long-range missiles and efforts to build a nuclear bomb. The U.N. did not give a final vote to approve the war but the U.S. pointed to previous resolutions that called for "serious consequences" if Iraq did not disarm.
Since then, inspectors have turned up some evidence of undeclared weapons research and two chemical artillery shells, but none of the stockpiles that Iraq was accused of maintaining.
A total of 833 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion -- more than 500 of them in guerrilla attacks since Bush's May 1, 2003, declaration that "major combat" was over.
Bush acknowledged that creating a free society in Iraq is "hard work."
"But we'll get there," he said. "And we'll get there because people want to be free. That's why we'll get there. People long to live in freedom."