In his state of the union address President Bush returned to one of his favourite themes: Saddam Hussein "aids and protects" al-Qaida. Yet the evidence for this claim is somewhere between tenuous and non-existent.
Every year the US state department releases an authoritative survey of global terrorism. According to its 2000 report: Iraq "has not attempted an anti-western attack since its failed attempt to assassinate former President Bush in 1993 in Kuwait". Even after September 11 the heaviest charge made in the state department's subsequent report was pretty mild: "Iraq was the only Arab-Muslim country that did not condemn the September 11 attacks against the United States."
Moreover, an al-Qaida-Saddam alliance defies common sense. Osama bin Laden is an Islamist zealot who despises secular fascists such as Saddam. I heard from Bin Laden himself that he is no fan of Saddam. When I met with the Saudi exile in Afghanistan five years ago he volunteered that he thought the Iraqi dictator was a "bad Muslim". For Bin Laden, that's as bad as it gets.
Why then has the Bush administration consistently tried to make a connection between Iraq and al-Qaida? The answer lies in the administration's quasi-theological conviction that such a connection must exist.
The Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward makes this point abundantly clear in his recent book, Bush at War. Directly after the September 11 attacks, the deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, the chief architect of the administration's get-tough policy on Iraq, told the cabinet: "There was a 10% to 50% chance Saddam was involved."
However, more than a year later, the most comprehensive criminal investigation in history has yet to find a scintilla of proof implicating Iraq.
When President Bush made his keynote speech on Iraq in October, the most compelling evidence he gave of al-Qaida's links to Saddam was the story of "one very senior al-Qaida leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year".
This leader is identified as Abu Musab Zarqawi, who, curiously, is so important that he does not appear on the FBI's list of the 22 most wanted terrorists. Indeed, key US investigators tell me that Mr Zarqawi is not a significant player in al-Qaida. In fairness, European intelligence officials do believe that Mr Zarqawi may have played an important role in al-Qaida operations in Europe.
If al-Qaida's connection with Iraq is far from proven, its links with Saudi Arabia are real. This is not to suggest that the Saudi government, which is also a target of al-Qaida, has actively supported the group. However, Saudi citizens have provided financial and logistical support to al-Qaida and the Saudi government has been unwilling or unable to stop them.
Despite the fact that most of the September 11 hijackers were Saudi, the government is barely cooperating with the US investigation into the attacks. The printable words US investigators use to describe the Saudi attitude towards their inquiries are "obstructionist", "useless" and "despicable".
Copyright 2003, The Guardian (London)