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EDITIONS
 Wednesday, 29 January, 2003, 20:35 GMT
Iraq sheltering al-Qaeda says UK
Saddam pictured on Monday
Pressure is being increased on Saddam, third left.
There is evidence al-Qaeda "operatives" are being sheltered in Iraq, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman has said.

It is the first time that the British Government has explicitly linked al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime, which flatly denied the claim.

Blair is meeting Berlusconi as part of his diplomatic campaign
Last week the prime minister said that there were some links between al-Qaeda and people in Iraq, but stressed that there was no evidence of a link between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime.

But on Wednesday his spokesman said there was evidence al-Qaeda operatives were sheltering in Iraq, adding that the nature of the regime meant they could not do so unless Saddam Hussein was willing to have them.

Later, when pressed in the House of Commons Mr Blair did not go as far as his spokesman, but said: "We do know of links between al-Qaeda and Iraq - we cannot be sure of the exact extent of those links."

Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, who highlighted the difference between these comments, said it was vital that the government spoke with a "clear and consistent voice" on Iraq.

Links

He said the public "want to know more detail about the potential threat that (Saddam Hussein) poses" and deserve "the fullest possible details on the nature and scale" of the threat.

Later, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, speaking on the American ABC television network, challenged the US to produce any evidence of its claims of al-Qaeda links.

Mr Aziz said: "Everybody in the region, everybody in the world knows Iraq has no connection with al-Qaeda."

UN weapons inspectors in Iraq
Iraq says it will answer inspectors' questions
Iraq insists it is cooperating with United Nations weapons inspectors.

As Mr Blair spoke in the Commons, one anti-war MP shouted: "Who's next?"

Mr Blair said that after Iraq had been "dealt with", North Korea would have to be confronted through the UN.

The comments came after US President George Bush used his State of the Union address to say he would present fresh evidence to the UN next week about Iraq's weapons programme.

President Bush vowed to lead a military campaign if the Iraqis did not disarm, and also pointed to links with al-Qaeda.

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

As the pressure is cranked up on Iraq, Mr Blair continued an intense round of talks with world leaders ahead of his meeting with the US president later this week.

Chirac

About 100 peace protesters gathered outside Downing Street on Wednesday evening as Mr Blair met Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

More than 200 people also attended an anti-war in Bristol city centre.

UN weapons chief inspector Hans Blix
The UK has key questions for Iraq after Blix's report
After his meeting with Mr Blair, Mr Berlusconi played down apparent European discord over Iraq, saying he was sure a common position would be found.

He told reporters: "I think we will find incontrovertible evidence against Iraq, and we shall we always to work through the Security Council of the United Nations."

Mr Blair has also spoken by phone to the Australian, Greek, Canadian and Turkish prime ministers on Tuesday.

He also called French President Jacques Chirac, who says nothing justifies war at the moment.

Diverging views

Those diplomatic efforts precede his meeting with President Bush in America later this week.

Amid signs of French and German opposition to possible war, Mr Blair's official spokesman accepted that not every EU country shared British policy on Iraq.

The UK Government has also published a list of 10 key questions arising from Dr Blix's report aimed at helping British people to "judge for themselves".

Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said no banned nuclear activity had been discovered.

He asked for more inspection time, something which seemed to be echoed by the tone of Dr Blix's report.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Lucy Atherton
"The time is up for Iraq to comply"
  Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary
"It is profoundly serious"

Talking PointTALKING POINT
 Iraq evidence
Is there a case for war? Ask an expert 1830 GMT

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29 Jan 03 | Middle East
29 Jan 03 | Politics
29 Jan 03 | Americas
29 Jan 03 | Politics
29 Jan 03 | Business
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