- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2003

Iran refused yesterday to hand over members of the al Qaeda terror network to the United States but signaled that it is prepared to deliver them to other, “friendly” countries.

The Bush administration said Tehran is obligated under a United Nations resolution to hand over the accused terrorists in its custody, whose presence Iran acknowledged last month. Several countries in the region are willing to take them, the administration said.

Iran is willing to turn over al Qaeda operatives “who belong to friendly countries or countries we have signed extradition treaties [with],” government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh told reporters in Tehran. “We don’t have an extradition treaty with the United States.”

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said in Washington that there are countries in the region “that would be interested in receiving” the al Qaeda operatives.

“We believe that some elements inside the Iranian regime have helped al Qaeda terrorists transit or find safe haven inside Iran, and that al Qaeda terrorists inside Iran played a part in planning the May 12 bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Citing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373, Mr. Reeker said all U.N. members must “deny safe haven to those who plan, support or commit terrorist acts and to affirmatively take steps to prevent the commission of terrorist acts by providing early warning to other states through exchange of information.”

“And so that’s something we would like to see the Iranians do,” he said.

Mr. Ramezanzadeh denied suggestions that Iran wants to swap the al Qaeda detainees for leaders of an Iraq-based armed Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mujahideen, who surrendered to U.S. forces during the war in Iraq.

“We will take members of the hypocrites from America if they offer, but there is no talk of swap,” he said in reference to the People’s Mujahideen leaders. “We don’t treat the issue of terrorism selectively, nor do we make deals.”

Many al Qaeda members are believed to have fled to Iran after the United States and its allies overthrew the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan in late 2001.

According to reports based on intelligence, those figures include Saif al-Adl, a top al Qaeda agent possibly connected to the Riyadh bombings; Abu Mohammed al-Masri, wanted in connection with the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998; Abu Musab Zarqawi, whom some U.S. officials describe as the key link between al Qaeda and ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein; and Saad bin Laden, the son of al Qaeda leader and September 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.

In Baghdad yesterday, an Iranian delegation met with members of Iraq’s interim Governing Council, to which Tehran reacted cautiously when it was inaugurated last month under the auspices of the U.S.-led occupation administration.

“If the formation of the council in Iraq leads to a public government, it is a step toward realizing the demands of the people. But this council must not justify the continuation of the occupation,” Iranian President Mohammed Khatami said in mid-July.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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