Experts doubt Iraq, al-Qaeda terror link

Terrorism experts say they doubt Saddam Hussein has forged a link with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization.

U.S. President George W. Bush alleges that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda are working together to threaten the United States.

Bush says Iraq and al-Qaeda are co-operating in the pursuit of terror. But that view is being challenged by many in the U.S. intelligence community.

Bush has painted an alarming picture of Iraq's ties to the al-Qaeda terror network both at public rallies and in the Oval Office.

"You can't distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein when you talk about the war on terror," he said.

"The regime has long-standing and continuing ties to terrorist organizations and there are al-Qaeda terrorists inside Iraq."

There's only one problem with the ties the White House alleges between Saddam and al-Qaeda. According to most experts on Iraq , those ties barely exist, if they exist at all.

"While there are contacts, have been contacts, there is no co-operation. There is no substantial, noteworthy relationship," said Daniel Benjamin, former terrorism adviser to the U.S. National Security Council.

Experts point out that Saddam, a secular Iraqi nationalist who refuses to rule by the Muslim religious law of Sharia, is a natural enemy of Osama bin Laden.

As for bin Laden, he has vowed to topple Arab leaders like Saddam who don't embrace Islamic fundamentalism.

"Osama bin Laden hates Saddam Hussein and considers him an infidel," said Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Arabic newspaper Al Quds . He says bin Laden was even ready to help liberate Kuwait when it was invaded by Iraq in 1990.

That of course doesn't exclude Saddam forging an alliance with bin Laden more recently.

Bush makes these specific claims: - that Iraq and al-Qaeda have had high-level contacts - that Iraq is a safe haven for al-Qaeda fugitives - that Iraq instructed al-Qaeda about weapons of mass destruction.

According to George Tenet, the director of the CIA, those claims are based on "sources of varying reliability." Information has come from detainees the U.S is holding in Guantanamo Bay, and from people like Ahmed Chalaby, an exiled Iraqi opposition leader whose claims the CIA disputes.

Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA chief of counter-terrrorism, says the Bush administration is putting fierce pressure on the CIA to produce evidence about the Iraq al-Qaeda link that it doesn't have.

"They are not getting it from the CIA because the CIA, to its credit, is telling it the way they see it, which is what they should be doing, describing the world as it is, not as policy-makers wish it to be, or hope it to be, but as it is."

There is little doubt why the Bush administration is making these claims. The more it can link Iraq with the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks the more public support it can win for going to war against Saddam Hussein.