- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

Iran and Iraq, who make up two-thirds of President Bush's "axis of evil," sent signals yesterday that U.S. warnings may be starting to hit home.
Iran yesterday revealed that it has detained some 150 infiltrators suspected of having links to the al Qaeda terrorist network or the ousted Taliban regime. The disclosure came after U.S. criticism that Tehran was allowing terrorists fleeing the U.S.-led military campaign in neighboring Afghanistan to slip into the country.
Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), quoting an unnamed government source, said the infiltrators included nationals of Arab, African and European countries, with some carrying French, British, Belgian, Spanish and Dutch passports.
Separately, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told a German newspaper in an interview published yesterday that his country might accept "some form of [international] inspection" to monitor its weapons programs.
Mr. Bush and top administration officials have issued increasingly pointed warnings to the regime of Saddam Hussein over its barring of U.N. inspectors, who were withdrawn from the country in December 1998.
In his State of the Union address last month, Mr. Bush said Iran, Iraq and North Korea headed a global "axis of evil" in their sponsorship of terrorist groups and in their drive to obtain and export weapons of mass destruction.
All three countries rejected the label, and Mr. Bush's phrase has sparked a global debate about U.S. intentions in the post-September 11 war on terrorism.
Despite recent defiant rhetoric from Baghdad, Mr. Aziz told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that his country wanted a resolution of the current standoff. He said Iraq would consider admitting the inspectors again only if other countries in the region were subject to the same process.
The Bush administration has adopted an increasingly sharp tone toward Iran after Israeli commandos seized an Iran-supplied freighter bearing some 50 tons of weapons bound for Palestinian territory.
State Department spokesman Greg Sullivan said yesterday that the U.S. government had received no direct information about the arrests in Iran.
He said Tehran's role in the war on terror had been mixed, offering early help in the campaign in Afghanistan but apparently trying to influence the power struggle now under way in the western part of the country.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld earlier this month accused Iran of sheltering fleeing al Qaeda and Taliban operatives along the two countries' 600-mile border, charges that Tehran has strongly denied.
Zalmay Khalilzad, Mr. Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan, gave the most detailed account to date of U.S. concerns about Iran in an interview this week with the British Broadcasting Corp.
Mr. Khalilzad said hard-line factions inside Iran's Revolutionary Guards enjoyed long-standing ties to al Qaeda and had helped members of the group escape from Afghanistan to Iran. U.S. intelligence believes some suspected terrorists have been allowed to travel to third countries, he said.
In addition, the U.S. envoy said elements of the Al Quds division of the Revolutionary Guards had slipped into Afghanistan to aid Iran-allied factions in the power struggle there.
"We have given [the Iranians] the information we have with regard to what we think is happening, particularly with regard to the al Qaeda presence in Iran and movement across Iran," Mr. Khalilzad told the BBC.
Iranian officials went out of their way yesterday to stress they were not acting because of American pressure. The announcement came just days after major anti-U.S. demonstrations marking the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamidreza Asefi denied that Iran was interfering in Afghan affairs or that it had knowingly harbored terrorists.
The information supplied by the United States "is old, false and inaccurate and cannot be used," Mr. Asefi told IRNA.
The 150 arrests announced by Iran yesterday had taken place in the weeks before and after Mr. Bush's Jan. 29 State of the Union address.
IRNA reported that the infiltrators had come not from Afghanistan but from Pakistan, Iran's traditional rival in the battle for influence in Central Asia.
The government source quoted by IRNA said those arrested had made the 466-mile journey from Quetta in Pakistan to the Iranian border city of Mir-Javeh "without being prevented at all by Pakistan's security forces."
The source said that interrogations of the infiltrators, who included women and children, had not uncovered any senior Taliban or al Qaeda official. Iran has suggested that it might hand over those arrested to their home governments, which Mr. Sullivan said raised a new concern.
"We would really like to know what is happening to these people, if they are al Qaeda," he said.
"Frankly, we're not convinced that expelling them without knowing where they are going next is a positive step," he said.
The third member of Mr. Bush's axis, North Korea, also came in for new criticism yesterday.
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, briefing reporters before Mr. Bush's trip next week to Japan, South Korea and China, said Pyongyang's active arms export program remained a major issue of contention.
"Let's just say that the North Koreans have been known to go around with glossy brochures about their ballistic missiles," Miss Rice said. "They're stocking a lot of the world right now."
She said the administration's standing offer for direct talks with the North remained on the table but said the United States was insisting the talks lead to progress.
"We don't want dialogue for the sake of dialogue," she said. "That's not worth it."


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