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U.S. officials: Al Qaeda detainees deny Iraq link

From David Ensor
CNN Washington Bureau

U.S. officials say Abu Musab al Zarqawi, suspected in the death of a U.S. diplomat, had contacts with al Qaeda figures and spent time in Iraq.
U.S. officials say Abu Musab al Zarqawi, suspected in the death of a U.S. diplomat, had contacts with al Qaeda figures and spent time in Iraq.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two senior al Qaeda figures in U.S. custody have said they do not know of any connections between their group and the former Iraqi regime, U.S. officials said Monday.

But the officials downplayed the significance of the detainees' statements.

The New York Times reported Monday that Abu Zubaydah and Khaled Sheikh Mohammed have told interrogators al Qaeda didn't work with Saddam Hussein's regime.

U.S. officials confirm that Zubaydah said al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden rejected the idea of cooperating with Iraq.

The United States has said that Zubaydah was al Qaeda's head of operations and recruitment and has accused Mohammed of being the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

"My question about this story is -- so what?" said a senior U.S. official, adding that the detainees are mixing truth and lies in what they are saying to interrogators.

Given the compartmentalization of information in al Qaeda, the official said, "They might not know even if it were true" that al Qaeda was cooperating with Iraq.

"Bottom line: You can't trust them to know or to tell the truth if they do," the official said.

Bush administration officials have pointed to intelligence showing that Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of a terrorist group with ties to al Qaeda, spent some time in Baghdad, as circumstantial evidence of possible ties between Saddam's regime and al Qaeda.

Al Zarqawi has been indicted in his native Jordan in the slaying of U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley in Amman.

Officials have said that al Zarqawi is not known to have been a member of al Qaeda but that evidence suggests he was in contact with key figures of the terrorist network. Officials said evidence indicates al Zarqawi spent time in Baghdad after the war in Afghanistan and had his injured leg amputated there.

The Iraqi regime most likely would have known he was there, U.S. officials said.

In a reference to Times report, President Bush said Monday, " I guess the people who wrote that article forgot about al Zarqawi's network inside of Baghdad that ordered the killing of a U.S. citizen named Foley."

Speaking to reporters after a Cabinet meeting at the White House, Bush said, "Time will prove that the United States made the absolute right decision in freeing the people of Iraq from the clutches of Saddam Hussein."

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