Washington, 21 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization have taken sanctuary in Iraq.
Rumsfeld told a press briefing at the Defense Department yesterday that he believes the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is aware of Al-Qaeda's presence in his country: "There are Al-Qaeda in a number of locations in Iraq, and the suggestion that those people [Iraqi government] who are so attentive in denying human rights to their population aren't aware of where these folks [Al-Qaeda] are or what they are doing, is ludicrous."
Rumsfeld declined to say what evidence the United States has showing Al-Qaeda 's presence in Iraq. The secretary said now is not the right time to release such information. He added, "In a vicious, repressive dictatorship that exercises near total control over its population it's very hard to imagine that the government is not aware of what is taking place in the country."
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has previously accused Iraq of harboring terrorists and forming an "axis of evil" with Iran and North Korea. Rumsfeld said he believes Bush's tough language ultimately will result in the improvement of the lives of ordinary citizens in those three countries.
The defense secretary was also asked if the United States had any involvement in the takeover of Iraq's Embassy in Berlin yesterday by a previously unknown Iraqi dissident group. Rumsfeld said the U.S. had nothing to do with the takeover, adding that such action is "not the best way" to promote regime change in Baghdad.
Iraq condemned the occupation as "terrorist aggression" by mercenaries of the Israeli and U.S. intelligence services. "Armed terrorists from the mercenaries of the American and Zionist intelligence services attacked our embassy in Berlin, hurting an employee and holding the rest of the employees inside the building," the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a statement. German police freed the hostages following a four-hour standoff.
At the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, -- where Bush is on vacation -- White House spokesman Ari Fleischer condemned the Iraqis who seized their country's embassy to press for the overthrow of Saddam. Fleischer said the United States had no contacts with the Iraqis. He said the takeover undermined legitimate efforts by Iraqis both inside and outside the country to bring democracy there.
Bush and his top aides will meet at his ranch today to focus on how to transform the U.S. military. Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Air Force General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will attend. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Army General Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the Gulf, will not participate in the meeting. Fleischer urged reporters to read Franks' absence as a sign that Iraq was off the agenda.
At the briefing, Rumsfeld said future Pentagon spending needs as well as missile defense are among the chief topics of discussion.