- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

Terrorists have targeted the United States' largest nuclear power plant near Phoenix, and security officials are looking for Iraqi government "sleeper cells" that might carry out the attack, The Washington Times has learned.

The threat to the Palo Verde nuclear plant, located in the Sonora desert 50 miles west of Phoenix, prompted the deployment of National Guard troops to the facility, according to U.S. officials.

"We understand the sensitivity of this time, and we are very, very committed to protecting the safe operation of Palo Verde," Jim McDonald, a spokesman for the Arizona Public Service Co., which owns the reactor complex, said in an interview.

Mr. McDonald declined to comment on specific intelligence indicating a threat to Palo Verde but noted that the troops were added Tuesday by order of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano.

One official said the report on the Palo Verde threat was contained in classified intelligence reports distributed to law-enforcement and security officials.

A second U.S. official confirmed the report and said it was "uncorroborated threat information" that was sent to appropriate U.S. security authorities.

Palo Verde is the largest nuclear power facility in the United States with three reactors that produced 30 billion kilowatt hours of electricity last year, Mr. McDonald said.

The threat to attack the facility came from sensitive information indicating that the plant was targeted by Middle Eastern terrorists who were not further identified.

The threat to Palo Verde comes as other intelligence reports indicate that Iraq has set up clandestine cells of operatives inside the United States or abroad that could be called on to conduct attacks or sabotage on behalf of Baghdad.

For example, recent intelligence reports indicated that Iraqi diplomats in Cairo had conducted surveillance of the U.S. Embassy there, U.S. officials said.

Officials did not say how many Iraqi cells are in the country. Baghdad has nearly 250 officials posted to the United States, most of them at its U.N. mission in New York.

A Bush administration official said the State Department has decided to expel the three Iraqi diplomats posted to Baghdad's interest section in Washington. The expulsion order is expected as early as today.

Only Iraqi officials engaged in improper intelligence or terrorism-related activity can be expelled from the U.N. mission.

Meanwhile, the FBI warned law-enforcement officials yesterday to watch for suspicious activity by people driving Iraqi diplomatic license plates.

"Suspicious activity involving vehicles bearing Iraqi diplomatic license plates should be reported immediately to the nearest Joint Terrorism Task Force," the FBI stated in a weekly intelligence bulletin.

Codes used by cars driven by Iraqi diplomats in Washington bear the "TF," and Iraqi U.N. diplomatic vehicles in New York have the "TS" code.

Intelligence officials said the administration has urged governments around the world to expel Iraqi diplomats, and several have complied.

Iraqi diplomats have been expelled in recent days from Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Thailand and Australia.

Two Iraqis also were expelled from the United States on March 5 after they were identified as intelligence officers, U.S. officials said.

Justice Department officials yesterday confirmed that the FBI is looking to interview as many as 50,000 Iraqis now in the United States for information that could help U.S. forces. They said a war with Iraq is expected to dramatically increase the chances of terrorist attacks against U.S. targets in this country and abroad.

One senior department official said that while most Iraqis in this country are not believed to be terrorists or associated with terrorist organizations, Muslim extremists within the Iraqi community who are affiliated with al Qaeda could use a war as the reason for an attack.

Among the Iraqis being sought for questioning are 3,000 illegal immigrants said to be missing, amid U.S. concerns that some could be connected with groups or agents of the Iraqi regime.

Earlier this week, Mexican authorities detained six Iraqi citizens as they sought to cross into the United States from Tijuana. The six, including one woman, claimed to be German citizens on their arrival at the Tijuana airport Tuesday night on a flight from Mexico City. They have been returned to Mexico City for questioning.

It could not be learned if the detained Iraqis were connected to the plot to attack Palo Verde.

Border Patrol authorities also confirmed that a diary written in Arabic was found last week in a backpack discovered on a southern Arizona trail frequently used by illegal aliens. The diary, according to the sources, contained names and telephone numbers of at least two persons in Canada and Iran.

The FBI has since taken custody of the diary, but refused comment on it yesterday.

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