- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2001

Osama bin Laden was in contact with Iraqi government agents from his base in Afghanistan in the days leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

Officials also told The Washington Times there are indications bin Laden, the leading suspect in the deadly attacks, is preparing to flee Afghanistan and set up operations in the African nation of Somalia.

Bin Laden's contacts with the Iraqi government were detected before the attacks, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"This is the basis for signs of state sponsorship," said one official.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said Wednesday that foreign governments likely provided safe haven and support for the 19 terrorists who hijacked four U.S. airliners. Three of the airliners were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; another crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers apparently fought their captors.

Mr. Ashcroft did not identify what foreign governments are believed to be behind the attacks.

Officials said the intelligence of direct Iraqi government contacts with bin Laden is one of several pieces pointing to Baghdad's involvement in the attacks.

U.S. warplanes attacked air- defense sites in Iraq yesterday, but the Pentagon said the attacks are unrelated to U.S. anti-terrorism operations.

President Bush and other U.S. officials have said bin Laden is the key suspect in masterminding last week's kamikaze attacks that killed more than 6,000 Americans.

Mr. Bush told a joint session of Congress last night that all governments are on notice that "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

David Ivry, Israel's ambassador to the United States, said yesterday it was too soon to make conclusions about an Iraqi role in the attacks.

"My opinion is the investigation is being done by the United States by professionals," Mr. Ivry told editors and reporters in a meeting at The Washington Times. "They are going to come to conclusions. We are going to try to assist as much as we are going to be asked. But I think it's too early to come up with a kind of fingering of somebody."

Mr. Ivry said Iraq has been supporting Palestinian terrorists in Israel by giving financial aid to the families of suicide bombers who have launched attacks.

Earlier this week, intelligence officials said one of the hijackers, Mohammed Atta, met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in the months before the attack.

The Bush administration is considering whether to target Iraq as part of an international campaign to destroy terrorists and their networks.

Some Bush administration officials, especially within the Pentagon, favor attacking Iraq when operations against Afghanistan are begun, possibly within the next few weeks. Other administration officials are said to favor limiting the first strikes to Afghanistan.

Asked about public calls for going after state sponsors of terrorism like Iraq, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said President Bush "has a clear idea in his mind and has given us our instructions as to how we will begin this campaign and what the focus of our efforts will be initially."

"We welcome the views from everybody as to how we might go about this campaign," Mr. Powell said.

Regarding bin Laden's future in Afghanistan, officials said the indications of his flight to Somalia were received in the past few days.

"There are indications he is heading to Somalia," said one official.

The indications are said to include plans for bin Laden to relocate himself and his wives and other family members from locations in Afghanistan to an undisclosed location in Somalia, the official said.

Disclosure of the relocation comes as the ruling Taliban militia announced yesterday in Kabul that bin Laden would be asked to leave the country.

A statement issued by the Ulema, or council of some 1,000 Taliban clerics, was not an order for bin Laden to leave. Afghan officials quoted by U.S. wire services stated that bin Laden would be given time to leave "whenever possible."

Asked about the Taliban statement, Mr. Powell said the announcement was not enough.

"Voluntarily or involuntarily, we believe that Osama bin Laden has to be put under control and turned over to authorities who can bring him to justice, and it should be done rather quickly," Mr. Powell said. "We want action, not just statements."

Mr. Powell said bin Laden was responsible for "tragedies around the world."

The Taliban must turn over bin Laden and "all of the other lieutenants and the infrastructure that exists within Afghanistan," Mr. Powell said.

"This isn't a campaign against one individual, but also the network that he is the leader of," Mr. Powell said. "And when we have dealt with al Qaeda, the network, Osama bin Laden, the individual, we will then broaden our campaign to go after other terrorist organizations and forms of terrorism around the world. It is a long-term campaign. It will be done in a deliberate way. It will be done in a decisive way."

A military source said bin Laden's relocation to Somalia would put that nation on the Pentagon's list of targets of planned military operations against international terrorists.

Moving to Somalia would have symbolic value for bin Laden, who has called on his followers to kill Americans.

The U.S. military withdrew from Somalia in 1993 following a deadly battle in Mogadishu that left 18 U.S. Army Rangers dead. The operation was part of a U.S. military humanitarian operation to help feed starving Somalis that degenerated into an effort to hunt down Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid.

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