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Proof of Iraq-al-Qaida Ties Growing, says US Defense Secretary - 2003-01-29

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says there is growing evidence of direct links between Iraq and the al-Qaida terrorist network.

Mr. Rumsfeld said the evidence has been mounting since late September when he first disclosed sketchy intelligence information on al-Qaida's connection with Baghdad.

Speaking at the Pentagon, Mr. Rumsfeld declined to give any new details. But he said Secretary of State Colin Powell will reveal specifics in a planned presentation to the United Nations next week. "One of the elements of Secretary Powell's presentation will be on that subject," he said.

Iraq has denied any connection to the terrorist network.

But last September, Mr. Rumsfeld said there was what he termed "solid evidence" of the presence in Iraq of al-Qaida members. He also said there was what he considered "very reliable reporting" of senior level contacts going back a decade, including contacts he said were aimed at helping al-Qaida obtain weapons of mass destruction and possible chemical and biological agent training.

Appearing with Mr. Rumsfeld at his weekly Pentagon news briefing was General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In response to a question about the build-up of U.S. forces near Iraq, General Myers indirectly confirmed a small number of troops are already in the country, in the Kurdish-held north.

"I don't think we want to get into where our forces are right now but there are not significant military forces in northern Iraq right now," General Myers said. Defense officials now estimate there are some 87,000 U.S. military personnel in the Gulf region and Afghanistan - a number expected to grow to 150,000 in the coming weeks.

At the same time, the Pentagon has revealed another 15,000 reservists have been mobilized, bringing the total to over 94,000 - the largest reserve activation since the 1991 Gulf war.

The U.S. Coast Guard also announced Wednesday that it joining the build-up, sending eight of its patrol boats to the Gulf where they will assume anti-terrorism protection duties for Navy ships and other vessels.

A Coast Guard spokesman says the cutters will depart within the next few days, accompanied by some 600 personnel.