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Bush Turns Up Heat on Baghdad

Aired September 26, 2002 - 12:01   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Standing shoulder to shoulder with members of the U.S. Congress, President Bush today turned up the heat on Baghdad, while toning down the war of words with Democrats. In Congress, we have coverage this hour from CNN's Barbara Starr. She's at the Pentagon.
Suzanne Malveaux over at the White House, and Rula Amin in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

We'll begin over at the White House, where the president is building on comments yesterday from his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, in a broadcast interview.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: 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 developments.

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.


BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux, are statements like those aimed at shoring up support on the home front for a potential new gulf war?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they certainly are, Wolf, and I have to tell you that the White House strategy is not to really present more evidence, but more details about Saddam Hussein's alleged misdeeds. They talk about that he wants to try to build this nuclear bomb, that Iraq has been harboring Al Qaeda inside of Baghdad or training them with chemical weapons, but also talking about the Iraqi regimes, saying these are people that raped their women and for tortured the opposition. This is part of the argument.

Another part of the strategy is really to show that time is really of the essence here, that the United States is running out of time, the president saying that yes, this poses a grave threat to this country and the threat is growing. The president mention it had would take only 45 minutes for Saddam Hussein to launch a chemical or biological weapon, that it would be a year before Saddam Hussein would be in possession of a nuclear bomb. All of this really point to go the fact that the Congress needs to pass a tough resolution, one that holds Saddam Hussein accountable and quickly -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux at the White House. We will be getting back to you as events develop.

Other U.S. officials are not as convinced as those inside the White House that there are provable links, directly linking Al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime.

Let's brings in our national security correspondent David Ensor.

David, what exactly is the state of evidence, this drumbeat we've been hearing now for the past few days of some direct links between Al Qaeda and Iraq?

DAVID ENSOR, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, senior officials that I have been speaking to today say there is no definitive proof of links between Al Qaeda and Iraq, but there is some quite intriguing evidence that the two organizations have been talking to each other over time and some of evidence that Al Qaeda may have received help. Specifically they are backing up the comments of Condoleezza Rice, saying that there is evidence that some members of Al Qaeda were given some training in the use of chemical weapons.

A couple of years ago, this evidence being provided by detainees taken about the evidence given about two months ago, from one or more of the detainees who were taken in Pakistan. Also evidence that -- and they he are giving the names, by the way, of Al Qaeda individuals said to have been trained in the use of chemical weapons, and also evidence of contacts between representatives of Al Qaeda, and a relatively senior Iraqi official, and evidence that some in Al Qaeda have asked that members of their organization be harbored in Saddam Hussein's control part of Iraq.

So contacts, yes. Some help, perhaps, no evidence linking Iraq, however, to terrorism by Al Qaeda -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The fact that the administration keeps saying, there are Al Qaeda terrorists inside of Iraq right now, the president just said it within the past hour or so, are they referring to Al Qaeda terrorists who are in this Kurdistan and parts of the Kurdish- controlled areas of Iraq, or directly within the Baghdad area, areas that Saddam Hussein, of course, controls.

ENSOR: As far as I know, they are referring to Al Qaeda representatives out there in the Kurdish parts that you mentioned. All I know so far from my sources is that there is some evidence that Al Qaeda personnel may have request that some of them be harbored in the part of Iraq-controlled by Saddam. I do not yet have anything from sources saying that they know Al Qaeda people are in Saddam's Iraq.

BLITZER: David Ensor, joining us from Capitol Hill, thanks very much. Let's go now to the Pentagon, where CNN's Barbara Starr is following developments was, including a report that the United States is planning to train Iraqi dissidents to fight alongside Americans if war breaks out. What's the word on that, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: What is going on is the Pentagon is assembling a list of Iraqi dissidents, members of opposition groups that they think may may be able to train, but it's a very different kind of training actually. It is noncombat skills. They want to train them to be scouts, interrogators, guides through Iraq, that sort of thing, and possibly even work in a post-Saddam Iraq.

At the moment, at least, there is no throughout of specifically giving them lethal weapons training, training them to fire tanks, guns, artillery, that kind of thing. If the plan works out, they do not feel at the moment they would have to go to Capitol Hill for any kind of new congressional authorization. This could be done under the existing Iraqi Liberation Act, which provides for about $98,000,000 or so of training for Iraqis.

And as I said, they are assembling a list of people. That could be as many as 10,000 people, but there is no indication that they would actually train 10,000 people. They will go through the list, vet the people, and many of them may be elderly or incapable of this kind of physical work, but very importantly, they will also give them an intelligence study. They want to make sure that they would not be accidentally be training anyone that is pro-Saddam, or possibly even Al Qaeda.

So the plan is in the works, but there is a long way to go before it starts happening.

BLITZER: Barbara, another attack in the no-fly zone in Iraq. Once again, as our viewers know, British and U.S. warplanes monitoring and patrolling the no-fly zones.

What happened today?

STARR: Well, in fact, late yesterday warplanes struck a civil military airfield in Basra, in southern Iraq, and they struck the military side of the airfield, striking a mobile radar. This has happened before in Iraq. What the U.S. does is strike radars that it finds at these dual-use airports to minimize any impact on civilians. They do try and make sure there was no civilian air traffic in the field at the time.

But the U.S. strategy is if Saddam is going to put his radars in places where they threaten coalition aircraft, the U.S. will strike them.

BLITZER: Is there any indication, Barbara, that these strikes, once the radar may be locked onto U.S. or British warplanes, are becoming more intensive in recent days or weeks. They've been going on for at least a year or two, if not obviously much longer. Is there any new desire on the part of the U.S., for example, to use these incidents as an opportunity to destroy some Iraqi military capabilities?

STARR: Well, what's interesting is that I wouldn't point to this one yesterday as being terribly new; it is actually routine as those sorts of things go. But in recent weeks, in fact, there was a change of strategy. The U.S. is going more and more after regional centers, air traffic control, radars, command and control facilities that may cover a broader region in Iraq.

And very clearly, the strategy is to start dealing now with some of those key air defense nodes, take them out, destroy them, so that if the U.S. does go into war against Iraq, it already has a headstart against the Iraqi air defense system and some of the key facilities that could threaten U.S. aircraft, paving the way to clear the skies for the U.S. Aircraft if and when military action begins.

BLITZER: Precisely what I am hearing as well. Thanks, Barbara Starr, for that report from the Pentagon. Let's get the view now from inside Iraq.

Our Rula Amin is in Baghdad.

Rula, what is the reaction there to this latest round of claims from the Bush administration, trying to make a connection between the Iraqi government and Al Qaeda?

RULA AMIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there were no specific comments made specifically for these latest claims, but we did hear from Iraqi officials previously in the last few weeks, denying any kind of connection with Al Qaeda or any terrorist organizations. Iraqi officials are adamant they had nothing to do with September 11th, and it had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden, ever. They point to the fact that the Ba'ath Party started as a secular party, a secular regime. It is not very tolerant of Islamic fundamentalist movements, specifically Islamic extremists, and so they do say that they have never had a connection with Al Qaeda or bin Laden, not in the previous years and not lately -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Rula, about the latest incidents in the no-fly zones and the U.S. and British response?

AMIN: Well, we're hitting a slightly different version from the Iraqis. The Iraqis the radar system that was attacked was used for the civilian airport, the international airport in Basra, and they say that actually the service building, the main service building in the airport was also damaged. We do know from the airport itself that flights go in and out of that airport. They are saying that this is a treacherous act, they say this is an aggression, an act of terrorism. The Iraqis keep on saying they are in a war with the United States since 12 years, and they always point to the attacks in the no-fly zones, and they insist on what is attacked is not only defense and military installations, but military targets, and they claim hundreds of civilians were killed during the attacks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Rula Amin, with the latest from Baghdad. Thanks very much.


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