A top al Qaeda associate in Iraq has fled to neighboring Iran, where he and several senior al Qaeda leaders apparently remain under the protection of the Iranian government, U.S. intelligence officials say.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi fled Iraq within the past several weeks and is in Iran, the officials told The Washington Times.
Al-Zarqawi was identified in a U.N. briefing given in February by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell as an “associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants.”
That link was a key element in the U.S. case that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was tied to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, a stance repeated yesterday by President Bush in response to a New York Times report that said two al Qaeda captives had said the group did not cooperate with Saddam.
“I guess the people that wrote that article forgot about al-Zarqawi’s network inside of Baghdad that ordered the killing of a U.S. citizen named [Laurence] Foley,” Mr. Bush said. “And history in time will prove that the United States made the absolute right decision in freeing the people of Iraq from the clutches of Saddam Hussein.”
U.S. intelligence officials believe that al-Zarqawi helped the terrorists who killed Mr. Foley, a U.S. diplomat, in Amman, Jordan, in October.
Iran’s government have denied Bush administration assertions that Tehran was harboring al Qaeda terrorists. But the Iranian government has recently stated that it had detained several al Qaeda members, although it has not identified any.
American intelligence officials said Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the Qods Division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a unit of hard-line Islamist shock troops, are deeply involved in supporting terrorists, including al Qaeda.
A U.S. official said the Bush administration wants Iran to turn over al-Zarqawi to the United States because of his connection to the Foley killing, although it could not be learned whether the State Department has made a formal request.
The U.S. official said any approach is likely to be carried out through a friendly third party, such as Jordan or Saudi Arabia.
The official said al-Zarqawi is not a member of al Qaeda but “worked with them when it was convenient.”
“He’s a real bad actor,” said the official, who cautioned that al-Zarqawi’s presence in Iran is not a certainty. “There are reports he’s washed up in Iran.”
Another intelligence official said al-Zarqawi might be among the al Qaeda members that the government of Iran said it had detained, although other officials doubted this.
Other officials said recent intelligence reports circulated within the U.S. government stated that al-Zarqawi moved to Iran from Iraq after Mr. Powell identified him in the Feb. 5 briefing to the Security Council.