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Cheney Says Iraq Harbored Al Qaeda

Times Staff Writers

Vice President Dick Cheney said Thursday that Saddam Hussein had given “safe harbor” to Al Qaeda when he ruled Iraq, reviving a debate about the nature of the former Iraqi leader’s contacts with the terror network.

Speaking to about 400 Republicans at a convention center here, Cheney defended the U.S. invasion of Iraq, saying Hussein had refused to adhere to U.N. Security Council resolutions and had used chemical weapons against his own people.

Cheney added that Hussein had “provided safe harbor and sanctuary to terrorists for years ... and had provided safe harbor and sanctuary as well for Al Qaeda.”

Similar comments by Cheney and President Bush touched off a controversy in June, when the staff of the independent 9/11 commission issued a report which said that Hussein apparently had no “collaborative relationship” with Al Qaeda. The terrorism group, led by Osama bin Laden, is considered responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

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The staff’s conclusion led to a debate about whether Bush and Cheney had properly stated the intelligence when they cited links between Hussein and Al Qaeda. Cheney has spoken of “long-established ties” between the former Iraqi leader and the terrorism network, and Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address said that Hussein “aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda.”

The commission staff report said that a senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly met with Bin Laden in the early 1990s in Sudan and possibly later in Afghanistan. But those contacts “do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship,” the report said.

“Two senior Bin Ladin associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq,” the report said, using an alternate spelling for the terrorist leader. “We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.”

Anne Womack, Cheney’s campaign spokeswoman, said the vice president in his comments was linking Hussein to Abu Musab Zarqawi, believed to be behind elements of the insurgency in Iraq. Experts have differed on whether Zarqawi is affiliated with Al Qaeda or runs his own terrorist network.

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Cheney’s comments came as Bush, also on the campaign trail, attacked Democrat John F. Kerry’s tax and spending proposals. The Bush campaign unveiled a new television ad criticizing the Democrat for recent comments on Medicare.

Campaigning in Colmar, Pa., Bush charged that Kerry’s stated desire to repeal the president’s tax cuts on the wealthiest 2% of Americans would fall $1.4 trillion short of the aggregate price tag for Kerry’s spending proposals.

Tallying Kerry’s plans for new spending at more than $2 trillion, Bush told hundreds of Republicans at Byers’ Choice, a family business that makes Christmas figurines: “So you do the math.... Guess who would end up paying the bill?” My opponent, by making political promises and by promising to tax small businesses such as Byers’ Choice, would hurt our economy,” Bush said.

The Bush campaign has based its estimate according to information cited by the media, the Congressional Budget Office and independent analysts. Earlier this year, it was citing a figure of $1.7 trillion for dozens of new Kerry programs over the next decade. Republicans said much of the new spending would come from the Democrat’s plan to expand access to healthcare and reduce insurance premiums.

Phil Singer, a Kerry campaign spokesman, disputed Bush’s charge that Kerry’s spending programs add up to $2 trillion. “The analysis they are relying on includes more than $1.5 trillion in bogus spending,” Singer said.

The Kerry camp also said that most Americans have acquired a greater tax burden during the Bush years."Bush’s failed leadership has shifted the tax burden to the middle class, and under his plans working families will face higher taxes as he works to impose a 60% retail sales tax,” Singer said in a statement.

He added: “John Kerry and John Edwards have a plan to cut taxes for 98% of all Americans, 99% of all businesses, and help families deal with the skyrocketing costs of healthcare.”

The two campaigns also tangled over Medicare, as the Bush campaign unveiled a television ad designed to blunt Kerry’s criticism of a recent premium hike in the insurance program. Last Friday, the Bush administration announced that premiums would rise 17% next year, the largest increase in Medicare’s history.

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The Bush campaign ad said that Kerry had voted five times to raise Medicare premiums.

“John Kerry: He actually voted for higher Medicare premiums ... before he came out against them,” the ad said, continuing the Bush campaign’s charge that Kerry takes two sides of many issues.

The Kerry campaign disputed the charge in the ad.

“John Kerry has voted repeatedly to lower Medicare premiums. George W. Bush is the one who raised Medicare premiums by 17% last Friday, thanks largely to his phony prescription drug bill which is a boondoggle to the big drug companies,” said Kerry campaign spokesman Chad Clanton.

The president may have been buoyed by a Washington Post-ABC News Poll reported Thursday which showed him making gains after last week’s Republican National Convention. Bush led Kerry in the poll 52% to 43% among likely voters. Among registered voters, Bush led Kerry 50% to 44%.

The poll surveyed 952 self-identified registered voters from Monday through Wednesday. It had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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Gerstenzang reported from Cincinnati, Chen from Colmar, Pa.

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