- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

A "top 20" al Qaeda planner was in Baghdad several months ago, giving further credence to the Bush administration's assertion of linkage between Saddam Hussein's regime and Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization.

U.S. intelligence agencies have verified reports that Abu Musab Zarqawi met with people in Baghdad in the summer after fleeing Afghanistan when the United States began strikes to dislodge the ruling Taliban and kill al Qaeda members.

A U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said intelligence agencies are trying to learn more about Zarqawi's visit to Iraq and with whom he met. He is believed to still be in the Middle East, possibly in Syria.

"We know he was in Iraq for a period of time several months ago," the official said. "Zarqawi plans terrorist operations. He is in al Qaeda's top 20."

The United States lacks proof that Zarqawi, a Jordanian, had any role in the September 11 attacks carried out by 19 al Qaeda operatives at bin Laden's behest. But there is evidence he has orchestrated other attacks.

For example, the United States says Zarqawi, and bin Laden aide Abu Zubaydah, planned a major attack on tourists at a hotel in Amman, Jordan, but authorities learned of the plot and foiled it. Zubaydah was captured in March in Faisalabad, Pakistan, by Pakistani authorities, the FBI and covert U.S. agents. He remains in CIA custody and has been somewhat cooperative during interrogations.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, U.S. military officials yesterday sought to discredit reports that Ayman al-Zawahiri, a top aide of bin Laden, had been killed.

Russia's Itar-Tass news agency cited unnamed sources as saying that al-Zawahiri was killed in a special operation carried out by unidentified individuals in Afghanistan. It did not give any date.

"As far as I know, this is a rumor and nothing more," U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Roger King told Agence France-Presse.

In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "We have nothing to substantiate this information."

Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician and a leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, was said to be the No. 2 man in bin Laden's al Qaeda network and its chief financier. The United States has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

U.S. News & World Report said in its Sept. 30 edition that the United States tracked Zarqawi from Afghanistan to Iran, to Iraq, then to Syria. The magazine said Zarqawi is linked to Hezbollah and Palestinian bombings against Israel.

The report came the same week Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and White House National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice publicly detailed Iraq-al Qaeda ties for the first time.

"We do have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "We have what we consider to be credible contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities."

The Washington Times reported June 21 that al Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan were in Iraq. Some were using it as an escape route to Saudi Arabia or Yemen, officials told The Times then, accusing Baghdad of "tacit complicity."

Officials said yesterday that Saddam's regime had to know that such a high-ranking al Qaeda member as Zarqawi was in Baghdad.

The Bush administration is citing Iraq-al Qaeda ties as one more reason that force may be necessary to oust Saddam. It fits with the main administration argument that Saddam cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons that could fall into the hands of al Qaeda, which is suspected of seeking weapons of mass destruction.

"The knowledge that the intelligence community has of the al Qaeda relationship with Iraq is evolving," Mr. Rumsfeld said last week. "It's based on a lot of different types of sources of varying degrees of reliability. Some of it, admittedly, comes from detainees, which has been helpful, and particularly some high-ranking detainees."

Said Miss Rice, "This is a story that is unfolding, and it is getting clear, and we're learning more. We're learning more because we have a lot of detainees who are able to fill in pieces of the puzzle. And when the picture is clear, we'll make full disclosure about it."

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