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Kerry challenges Bush on Iraq-9/11 connection

Says administration is implying link that has been disproved

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(CNN) -- Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry accused the Bush administration Sunday of falsely linking Iraq to the attacks of September 11, 2001, "in its desperate attempts to reinvent a rationale for the Iraq war."

Kerry made his charge in a statement released after Secretary of State Colin Powell said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he has seen nothing to link Saddam Hussein's regime with the 9/11 attacks.

"We know that there had been connections and there had been exchanges between al Qaeda and the Saddam Hussein regime. And those have been pursued and looked at," Powell said on the program.

"But I have seen nothing that makes a direct connection between Saddam Hussein and that awful regime, and what happened on 9/11."

Kerry said Powell "came clean with the American people about the lack of a connection between Iraq, Saddam Hussein and the September 11 attacks."

Not only that, Kerry said, Powell also contradicted comments Vice President Dick Cheney has made as recently as Friday.

At campaign stops Thursday and Friday, Cheney mentioned al Qaeda in discussing the Iraq war, but he did not link Iraq under Saddam to September 11. (Special report: America Votes 2004)

On Thursday in Cincinnati, Ohio, Cheney described Saddam as a "man who provided safe harbor and sanctuary to terrorists for years" and who "provided safe harbor and sanctuary as well for al Qaeda."

In Wisconsin on Friday, he said the "al Qaeda organization had a relationship with the Iraqis."

"The bottom line is that we're [in Iraq] for the safety and security of the nation, and our friends and allies around the world," Cheney said.

"We didn't do anything to provoke the attack of 9/11. We were attacked by the terrorists, and we've responded forcefully and aggressively."

In June, Cheney said "we don't know" whether Iraq was involved in 9/11.

In September 2003, Cheney said Iraq under Saddam had been "the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11."

But at the time President Bush said, "We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11 [attacks]. What the vice president said was that he has been involved with al Qaeda."

The independent, bipartisan panel that investigated the attacks released its final report July 22. The 9/11 commission found there were numerous contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda in the 1990s, but it said those contacts did not result in a "collaborative relationship."

In his statement Sunday, Kerry complained that Cheney "continues to intentionally mislead the American public by drawing a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 in an attempt to make the invasion of Iraq part of the global war on terror.

"The president needs to answer the question: Who do you think is right? Vice President Cheney or Secretary Powell? And if it's Secretary Powell, will you direct your vice president to stop misleading the American people?"

The Kerry statement continued: "On an issue of such importance, where U.S. troops are bearing nearly 90 percent of the burden, and American taxpayers are paying $200 billion and counting, the administration has an especially solemn obligation to conduct itself in an honest and straightforward way.

"Unfortunately, in its desperate attempts to reinvent a rationale for the Iraq war, this White House has repeatedly chosen to mislead the American people."

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