YORBA LINDA — Vice President Dick Cheney said Tuesday that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime “harbors terrorist groups,” expanding on the Bush administration’s claims of a so-called axis of evil made up of Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
Cheney’s remarks to a luncheon group at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace went beyond previous characterizations that Iraq has in the past harbored terrorists.
Cheney on Friday addressed the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., where he said, ”(Hussein) has in the past had some dealing with terrorists, clearly. Abu Nidal for a long time operated out of Baghdad.”
In Yorba Linda, however, the vice president said the terrorist associations are current.
”(Hussein’s) regime also harbors terrorist groups including Abu Nidal and the Palestine Liberation Front,” Cheney told a $2,500-a-plate luncheon to raise money for the library. Abu Nidal is a Palestinian mastermind terrorist.
Cheney, on the second day of a four-day California visit, also repeated the administration’s claim that Iran “is the world’s leading exporter of terror.”
He commented only briefly on North Korea, noting that President Bush was visiting South Korea Tuesday and would be addressing the administration’s concerns over North Korea’s weapons programs.
“Each of these regimes has a choice to make,” Cheney said. “The international community should encourage all of them to make responsible choices and to do so with a sense of urgency.”
U.S. allies have been critical of the “axis of evil” remark, which Bush made in his State of the Union address last month in defining how Washington plans to approach its war on terrorism. But Cheney said Tuesday, “the evidence is compelling.”
Hussein’s Iraq “has single-mindedly sought weapons of mass destruction, and the means to deliver them,” he said. “Saddam has long employed terror and used chemical weapons against his own people and neighbors. His regime also harbors terrorist groups, including Abu Nidal and the Palestine Liberation Front. Since the mid-1990s, Baghdad has publicly claimed to have a suicide terrorist capability in the Fedayeen Saddam, directed by Saddam’s oldest son.”
The vice president described the fight against terrorism as “the defining struggle of the 21st century.”
Before his address to about 150 guests, Cheney was met by a small knot of protesters outside the library. They held signs criticizing the war in Afghanistan and linking Cheney to the failed Enron Corp.
Cheney and his wife, Lynne, toured the library with President Nixon’s daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and the library foundation awarded the Cheneys the Architect of Peace Award, which honors public service.
Later, Cheney taped an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” He said on the show that those responsible for Enron’s collapse of should pay “a very heavy price.”
Cheney’s visit to California is part of an increasingly public schedule for the vice president. For security reasons he has been largely out of view in recent months in undisclosed locations outside of Washington.
Leno turned that into a joke, pretending to search for Cheney before he came onstage.
“Just what the country needs, another undisclosed location joke,” the vice president deadpanned as he popped from behind a closed door.
Cheney visited the troops at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego on Monday, and is scheduled to discuss agriculture with farmers in Fresno on Wednesday and deliver remarks on the new economy in the Silicon Valley on Thursday.
There is also a political subtext to Cheney’s visit, which comes two weeks before the March 5 primary, when California Republicans will select a challenger to Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. The administration is eager to install a Republican governor in the nation’s most populous state.
Cheney was expected to raise $1 million for the state Republican Party at a fund-raiser Tuesday evening and was also scheduled to attend fund-raisers for Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, and Rep. John Doolittle, R-Rocklin.