A top al Qaeda associate in Iraq has fled to neighboring Iran, where he and several senior al Qaeda leaders apparently remain under the protection of the Iranian government, U.S. intelligence officials say.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi fled Iraq within the past several weeks and is in Iran, the officials told The Washington Times.
Al-Zarqawi was identified in a U.N. briefing given in February by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell as an “associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants.”
That link was a key element in the U.S. case that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was tied to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, a stance repeated yesterday by President Bush in response to a New York Times report that said two al Qaeda captives had said the group did not cooperate with Saddam.
“I guess the people that wrote that article forgot about al-Zarqawi’s network inside of Baghdad that ordered the killing of a U.S. citizen named [Laurence] Foley,” Mr. Bush said. “And history in time will prove that the United States made the absolute right decision in freeing the people of Iraq from the clutches of Saddam Hussein.”
U.S. intelligence officials believe that al-Zarqawi helped the terrorists who killed Mr. Foley, a U.S. diplomat, in Amman, Jordan, in October.
Iran’s government have denied Bush administration assertions that Tehran was harboring al Qaeda terrorists. But the Iranian government has recently stated that it had detained several al Qaeda members, although it has not identified any.
American intelligence officials said Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the Qods Division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a unit of hard-line Islamist shock troops, are deeply involved in supporting terrorists, including al Qaeda.
A U.S. official said the Bush administration wants Iran to turn over al-Zarqawi to the United States because of his connection to the Foley killing, although it could not be learned whether the State Department has made a formal request.
The U.S. official said any approach is likely to be carried out through a friendly third party, such as Jordan or Saudi Arabia.
The official said al-Zarqawi is not a member of al Qaeda but “worked with them when it was convenient.”
“He’s a real bad actor,” said the official, who cautioned that al-Zarqawi’s presence in Iran is not a certainty. “There are reports he’s washed up in Iran.”
Another intelligence official said al-Zarqawi might be among the al Qaeda members that the government of Iran said it had detained, although other officials doubted this.
Other officials said recent intelligence reports circulated within the U.S. government stated that al-Zarqawi moved to Iran from Iraq after Mr. Powell identified him in the Feb. 5 briefing to the Security Council.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last month that he is convinced that senior al Qaeda leaders are in Iran.
Asked whether the United States would go to war with Iran if Tehran is sheltering al Qaeda, Mr. Rumsfeld said: “Well, those are decisions not for me. Those are decisions for the president.”
“It is worrisome that that country clearly is not being helpful in Iraq today,” Mr. Rumsfeld said on May 29. “It is also clear that they have permitted senior al Qaeda to operate in their country, and that is something that creates a danger to the world, because we know what the al Qaeda can do in terms of killing innocent men, women and children.”
Defense and intelligence officials said the senior al Qaeda members the secretary has mentioned include at least two hiding in Iran — including Sayf al-Adl, who is believed to be the official in charge of al Qaeda’s military operations and has been linked to the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
Al-Adl has been in Iran since 2002 and is on the FBI’s list of most-wanted international terrorists.
A second top al Qaeda leader in Iran is Osama bin Laden’s oldest son, Saad bin Laden, who also arrived in Iran in 2002. Many U.S. intelligence analysts say they believe he took over al Qaeda’s leadership after the U.S. military’s destruction of al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan in October 2001.
The Washington Times disclosed Saad bin Laden’s presence in Iran in February.
Al-Zarqawi is the leader of the Islamist terror group Jund al-Shams, which is linked to al Qaeda and has operated in Syria and Jordan.
After U.S. forces disrupted al Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi fled that country and ended up with the Ansar al-Islam, which operated a terrorist camp in northern Iraq.
The camp was bombed by U.S. warplanes and attacked on the ground by Special Forces troops during the Iraq war.
Mr. Powell said in his presentation to the U.N. Security Council that the Ansar al-Islam camp was run by al-Zarqawi agents. He said the camp was operated with the help of a top Iraqi agent “in the most senior levels of the radical organization.”
Iran’s government said last month that it had arrested several al Qaeda members. Hamid Reza Asefi, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said on May 25 that of the several people being detained “we don’t know who these people are to be able to say whether they are senior or not.”
Mr. Powell said during the February briefing that al-Zarqawi’s terrorist network was a “potentially much more sinister nexus between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network.”
He said the network “combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder,” including a “poison and explosive training-center camp” in an area of northern Iraq controlled by Saddam’s government.
Al-Zarqawi, Mr. Powell said, traveled to Baghdad in May 2002 for medical care and stayed for two months.
“During his stay, nearly two dozen extremists converged on Baghdad and established a base of operations there,” he said. “These al Qaeda affiliates based in Baghdad now coordinate the movement of people, money and supplies into and throughout Iraq for his network, and they have now been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months.”