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Wednesday, 29 January, 2003, 18:30 GMT
Iraq rejects al-Qaeda links
President Bush delivering the State of the Union speech
Mr Bush said the US would prove Iraq's al-Qaeda links
Iraq has categorically rejected United States allegations that it has links to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, US President George W Bush said Iraq had links to terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, and might supply weapons of mass destruction to militants.

Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz
This false accusation was repeated many times and no evidence was presented

Tariq Aziz

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair echoed Mr Bush's comments in parliament on Wednesday, but said the connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda was unclear.

As the war of words continued, the UN Security Council met behind closed door in New York to discuss Monday's report from chief weapons inspectors.

As the Council was meeting, Iraq's Ambassador to the UN, Mohammad al-Douri, said Baghdad would co-operate "pro-actively" with weapons inspectors.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell is being sent to the Security Council next week to present what Mr Bush says is evidence of Iraq's links to terrorism.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told ABC television: "Everybody in the region and in the world knows Iraq has no connections with al-Qaeda.

"This false accusation [has been] repeated many times and no evidence was presented."

In his address, Mr Bush warned that the US was ready to disarm Iraq by force and without UN backing.

"Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications and statements by people now in custody reveals that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda," he said.

The European Union has stressed that Iraq's disarmament must be handled in the United Nations and has warned against the "catastrophe of war".

Unconvinced

Several of the 15 Security Council members going into Wednesday's meeting appeared still unconvinced that the case against Iraq was proven, the BBC's David Bamford says.

The Russian ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, said: "If countries have persuasive proof that Iraq continues its (weapons of mass destruction) programme then this proof should be presented."

KEY DATES
27 Jan - First full report on inspections presented to UN
29 Jan - UN discusses report
31 Jan - Bush meets Blair
5 Feb - Powell to address UN Security Council
15 Feb - Anti-war protests across Europe
27 Mar - Blix submits new report to UN
Mr Bush said that the US would ask the Security Council to convene on 5 February when Mr Powell would present fresh evidence to show Iraq's alleged links to terrorism and its secret weapons programme.

Mr Blair told the UK parliament on Wednesday: "We do know of links between al-Qaeda and Iraq. We cannot be certain of the nature of these links."

A Foreign Office spokesman in London went further, saying: "We believe that there have been, and still are, some al-Qaeda operatives in parts of Iraq controlled by Baghdad. It is hard to imagine that they are there without the knowledge and acquiescence of the Iraqi Government."

BBC News Online world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds says British officials did not offer any further information or evidence. They said that they had been making such a claim "for months".

However, our correspondent says it is timely for the UK and US to make a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq as it is one of the bases on which war is being justified. The problem is that it is almost impossible to verify such a link.

Open in new window : Who backs war?
Where key nations stand on Iraq

Reflecting European unease about military action, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said: "We have to put in place all the elements in order to avoid the catastrophe of a war".

"Saddam Hussein has to co-operate rapidly and co-operate in a very determined manner with the inspectors," he said.

EU foreign policy representative Javier Solana
Mr Solana hopes war can be avoided
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin issued a similar warning.

"The international community's responsibility today is huge: the choice of war or of peace, and it's not a choice to be made lightly," he said.

The US and UK say the weapons inspectors' report shows Iraq is not co-operating, but other countries say that more time is needed to prove Iraq's co-operation one way or another.

Another report from chief inspector Hans Blix is due on 27 March.

Mr Bush and Mr Blair will meet at Camp David, Maryland, on Friday in what some have described as a war conference.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Nick Bryant
"His speech was longer on accusations than evidence"
Daniel Neep of the Royal United Services Institute
"Killer evidence is crucial and has to be revealed in the next week"
Weapons inspector Mohamed ElBaradei
"In our area I see light at the end of the tunnel"

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29 Jan 03 | Europe
29 Jan 03 | Americas
29 Jan 03 | Americas
29 Jan 03 | Politics
28 Jan 03 | Europe
28 Jan 03 | Americas
28 Jan 03 | Middle East
28 Jan 03 | Americas
29 Jan 03 | Business
29 Jan 03 | Entertainment
29 Jan 03 | Americas
27 Jan 03 | Americas
29 Jan 03 | Europe
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