Cheney reasserts Iraq/al-Qaeda links

By Demetri Sevastopulo

Financial Times

Published: September 11 2006

US Vice-President Dick Cheney repeated assertions on Sunday on links between the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda despite a recent Senate intelligence committee report that concluded otherwise.

In defending the decision to invade Iraq despite its lack of weapons of mass destruction, Mr Cheney said the fact that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former head of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in a US air strike this year, was in Baghdad before the war was evidence that Iraq had links to al-Qaeda.

But a Senate intelligence committee report on prewar Iraq intelligence released on Friday concluded that there was no evidence that Mr Hussein’s Ba’athist regime had either harboured or turned a blind eye to Mr Zarqawi.

In an hour-long interview on NBC television, Mr Cheney argued that the invas­ion of Iraq had imp­roved the country. While recognising the increase in sectarian violence, he said Iraq was better off without Mr Hussein. “If we weren’t there . . . the situation would be far worse than it is today,” Mr Cheney said.

He acknowledged that the US intelligence on Iraq had been poor but he appeared to put the blame on the Central Intelligence Agency, saying George Tenet, the former director of the spy agency, had told President George W. Bush that the case that Mr Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk”.

But he said the lack of weapons of mass destruction would not have changed the decision to invade Iraq.

“If we had to do [it] over again, we would do exactly the same thing,” Mr Cheney said. He also defended the use of controversial methods – including the domestic spying programme and US detention policies – in the “war on terror”, saying they had helped stop further attacks on the US. “There has not been another attack on the US,” he said. “That is not an accident.”

Congress is considering legislation to authorise the National Security Agency’s warrantless eavesdropping programme. In the wake of a June Supreme Court ruling that the military commissions created to try prisoners at Guantánamo Bay were illegal, the White House and Congress are working towards approving a revamped military tribunal.

Republicans are becoming concerned that Democrats could gain control of one, or both, houses of Congress in November elections. With decreasing support for the Iraq war, which has resulted in the deaths of 2,662 US soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis, the administration is trying to argue that success in Iraq is key to winning the “war on terror”.

Mr Cheney, who said last year the insurgency was in its “last throes”, acknowledged on Sunday that “we did not anticipate an insurgency that would last this long”. But he said the US was “well on the way” to success, meaning viable government, a country that was not a safe haven for terrorists, and the elimination of al-Qaeda.