- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2002

Iran has emerged as an underground route for Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda warriors fleeing their former safe haven of Afghanistan.
Officials believe Tehran, part of what President Bush calls an "axis of evil," is allowing the terrorists to use the overland route to rendezvous with Middle Eastern extremist groups operating in Lebanon.
Officials said some may have reached Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. There are no confirmed reports of their settling in Somalia on the Horn of Africa, a generally lawless country where al Qaeda members might go.
The number of al Qaeda transiting Iran is believed to be in the scores, or low hundreds, said officials who asked not to be named. The major escape route continues to be Pakistan, whose porous border with Afghanistan and its al Qaeda-friendly tribal areas is the most inviting sanctuary.
Yesterday, for a second straight day, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld singled out Iran for helping bin Laden's foot soldiers escape.
"There is no question but that al Qaeda have moved into Iran and out of Iran to the south and dispersed to some other countries," Mr. Rumsfeld told a Pentagon press conference.
"They are not operating out of Iran in the sense that they were out of Afghanistan, so there's that distinction. But I can't think of a thing I've said that anyone, by the wildest stretch of their imagination, could characterize as 'helpful.' They're all harmful and contributing to the problems with respect to the global terrorists."
The defense secretary predicted that one day the people of Iran would oust their harsh Islamic rulers.
"I think that Iran is a country where ultimately the people are going to change their circumstance," he said. "The people are being repressed."
Bush administration sources say Iran, while publicly supporting the interim Afghan government, is attempting to undermine it behind the scenes. The sources say Iranian intelligence officers and special operating forces are attempting to buy the loyalties of warlords in western Afghanistan and pit them against interim leader Hamid Karzai.
Mr. Rumsfeld on Monday unleashed an even stronger verbal attack on Iran, which, with Iraq and North Korea, make up Mr. Bush's "axis of evil."
"Terrorists have declared war on civilization," Mr. Rumsfeld said, "and states like Iran, Iraq and Syria are inspiring and financing a culture of political murder and suicide bombing."
He said his remarks were prompted by reports that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is offering an inducement of $10,000 to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. "I would suggest that that is very actively trying to kill innocent men, women and children," he said. "That's exactly what the Iraqis intend to be doing by doing that."
He said Iran and Syria have a history of sending terrorists into Lebanon to conduct attacks on Israel.
"These countries are not only trying to kill people outside their countries, but they are repressing their own people," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "They have an active program of denying the rights of the people in those three countries, that is vicious, repressive and, unfortunately, successful."
Iran, Iraq, Syria and North Korea are all designated by the U.S. government as state sponsors of terrorism. But the administration has singled out Iraq for potential covert or military action to oust Saddam and end the country's development of weapons of mass destruction.
The State Department's 2000 report on global terrorism states: "Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2000. It provided increasing support to numerous terrorist groups, including the Lebanese Hizballah, HAMAS, and the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which seek to undermine the Middle East peace negotiations through the use of terrorism. Iraq continued to provide safe haven and support to a variety of Palestinian rejectionist groups, as well as bases, weapons, and protection to the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian terrorist group that opposes the current Iranian regime. Syria continued to provide safe haven and support to several terrorist groups, some of which oppose the Middle East peace negotiations."


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