- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

The United States is engaged in negotiations for the handover of suspected members of al Qaeda who fled from northern Iraq into Iran during Operation Iraqi Freedom, United Press International has learned.On May 2, President Bush’s special envoy to the Iraqi opposition, Zalmay Khalilzad, met with an Iranian delegation, including members of the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guard, in Geneva to discuss the return of members of the radical group Ansar al-Islam, which has been linked to al Qaeda.In exchange, the Iranian delegation has asked the United States to hand over members of the Mujahideen Khalq organization captured in operations in northern Iraq.The group tried to assassinate the chief of Iran’s paramilitary Nasr Command in April 2000 and has launched a series of strikes against Iranian forces since the early 1980s, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini placed several of its members in jail.The group’s Washington representatives provided the U.S. government last summer with accurate information about the existence of a uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz that is monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.”We are negotiating about the escaped al Qaeda guys and they are negotiating about [Mujahideen Khalq],” one U.S. official familiar with the discussions said yesterday.”We are asking, ‘What are you going to do to these guys when we give them back?’ We’re not quite there yet, but [Mr. Khalilzad] is saying it’s going very well.”A European diplomat familiar with the talks said, “It was a good meeting, and that is important because on security issues, it is very relevant for Iraq in this environment.”The suspected al Qaeda members of interest to the United States include Sa’adoon Mohammed Abdul Latif, or Abu-Wa’il, an Iraqi intelligence officer who first visited Afghanistan in 1999 and is believed to be an intermediary between Osama bin Laden and Iraq’s intelligence ministry.Another top suspect that went to Iran was Ayub Afghani, an al Qaeda-trained explosives specialist who fought in the 1980s in Afghanistan against the Soviet army.Both men escaped to Iran after U.S. planes bombed the Ansar al-Islam encampment in Biyara on March 22. While the Iranians allowed some of the Ansar fighters to return to Iraq after Kurdish peshmerga fighters overran the camp, senior leaders associated with the group remain in Iran, U.S. and Kurdish officials say.Secretary of State Colin L. Powell cited Ansar al-Islam as a link between Saddam Hussein and bin Laden on Feb. 5 in a speech indicting Iraq before the U.N. Security Council.U.S. officials also believe Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, the man Mr. Powell said is the head of a poisons network based in the Kurdish-controlled territory of northern Iraq, is in Iran.Mr. Khalilzad has been the U.S. government’s primary contact with the Iranian government since late last year, when Washington began engaging Tehran in talks about Iraq. The primary forum for these discussions has been the Geneva Group, an organization of European countries and the United Nations initially established to meet with Iran on issues related to Afghanistan.Last month, Mr. Khalilzad helped persuade members of the Iran-supported Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq to attend the second U.S.-sponsored town-hall-type meeting of Iraqis in Baghdad.Last week, UPI first reported the United States was attempting to persuade the IAEA to declare Iran out of compliance with the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in a report due next month.

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