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Powell will present evidence bolstering case for war, officials say

NEW YORK—Armed with intelligence data that until now has been classified, Secretary of State Colin Powell will go before the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday to answer skeptics who say the United States has yet to present a convincing case of the need for war with Iraq.

Powell was expected to unveil satellite photos and intercepted communications in an attempt to make it clear that Saddam Hussein is seeking weapons of mass destruction and is trying with all his might to hide the evidence from U.N. inspectors.

While there is no "smoking gun" definitively proving that Iraq retains banned chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the intelligence data show that Saddam's regime has manipulated and deceived U.N. weapons inspections, said U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

One White House official called the intelligence information "compelling" and added that in the debate over how much classified data to make public, a White House review group has pushed for the maximum possible disclosure without harming U.S. intelligence sources.

The highlight of Powell's presentation may be transcripts of intercepted phone conversations in which Iraqi officials are discussing how to evade the inspections.

American officials and outside analysts said the intelligence linking the Iraqi regime to terrorist networks, including al-Qaida, was much less clear-cut.

State Department and CIA officials have cautioned that they are not alleging operational links between the two. But they say there is enough evidence of contacts to justify President Bush's concern that Saddam might someday give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists intent on attacking the United States.

Powell's presentation to the Security Council could be the most significant official release of such data since President Reagan in 1986 revealed telephone intercepts that appeared to prove Libyan complicity in the bombing of a Berlin discotheque that killed two U.S. soldiers and a Turkish woman. The United States bombed Libya in retaliation.

Powell was expected to use about 20 slides and speak for about 90 minutes.

Amid the diplomacy, the military momentum for war continued to build. A force of 7,500 U.S. Marines aboard seven warships sailed through the Suez Canal on Monday night on its way to the Persian Gulf. Over the weekend, a third U.S. aircraft carrier battle group arrived in the region.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair met Tuesday with French President Jacques Chirac in an effort to persuade France not to veto any U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq.

France and Germany, which also holds a seat on the Security Council, have voiced strong opposition to war. Britain has been America's strongest ally in support of the possible need for war.

Chirac, after meeting Blair in Le Touquet, France, said he and Blair agreed on one thing—that disarming Iraq "has to be undertaken within the Security Council of the United Nations." His remarks seemed to rule out support for an immediate U.S.-led war.

Many Americans, as well as many people abroad, appear unconvinced of a need for imminent war.

Polls funded by news organizations over the last month consistently have suggested that a majority of Americans would support a war if the Bush administration articulated a strong reason for action and enlisted the United Nations and a large alliance.

But many Americans wonder why U.N. inspectors shouldn't get more time to work through what Powell has called Iraq's game of "hide and seek."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking at the Pentagon, said Tuesday, "In our country, in courts of law, it has been customary to seek evidence that could prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But in an age of weapons of mass destruction and weapons that can kill tens of thousands of innocent people, our goal has to be to take all reasonable steps to protect the lives of our citizens."

Hans Blix, the United Nations' chief weapons inspector, said Tuesday in New York that he hadn't specifically asked the Security Council to give him more time, but that he would welcome it.

"It is rather a short time to call it a day," he said of the inspections, which began in December.

Inspectors found an empty chemical warhead in Iraq on Tuesday, the 17th they have discovered in less than a month. Iraq said it was a remnant from the 1980s, when it was at war with Iran.

Saddam has denied that Iraq has any weapons of mass destruction, and in an interview broadcast Tuesday on British TV he also denied that his regime had any link to al-Qaida.

"The answer is no," he said, "We do not have any relationship with al-Qaida."

The evidence Powell is carrying is said to show that al-Qaida members have traveled regularly to Iraq since their organization was evicted from Sudan in May 1996.

Before 1996, the data suggest, al-Qaida operatives had regular contacts with Iraqi intelligence officers in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital.

Other evidence Powell may share purports to show a connection between an al-Qaida member who was recently in Iraq and a gang of alleged terrorists who were arrested recently in London.

The al-Qaida member is Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who was treated in Baghdad last summer for injuries suffered during U.S.-led attacks in Afghanistan. Zarqawi, who also has traveled to Iran and Syria, has been tied to at least two terrorist plots, including the murder of a U.S. diplomat in Amman, Jordan, in October.

Intercepted e-mail messages have shown contacts between Zarqawi and the London gang. British authorities found small amounts of the deadly nerve agent ricin last month in an apartment rented by a member of the group.

Jordanian intelligence officials think Zarqawi has found refuge with Ansar al Islam, a Kurdish militant group, in a part of northern Iraq that Saddam doesn't control, according to an Arab intelligence official who requested anonymity.

A captured al-Qaida official identified as Ibn al Shaykh al Libi, who allegedly ran Afghan camps where Kurdish militants received paramilitary training, has provided additional evidence of contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida, intelligence officials said.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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