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US Pentagon Official: al-Qaida Actively Involved in Iraq - 2003-09-12

A top Defense Department official is now saying al-Qaida terrorists are operating in Iraq, joining forces loyal to ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in a bid to kill Americans.

Before this year's war in Iraq, U.S. officials accused Saddam Hussein of harboring terrorists, including members of al-Qaida.

But since the war, military commanders have made little mention of Osama bin Laden's terrorist group and any alleged presence it might have in Iraq.

Instead, they have blamed recent bombings and other attacks on unspecified "foreign fighters" and members of an al-Qaida affiliated Iraqi-based terror group, Ansar al-Islam.

Now, though, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is saying al-Qaida is actively involved in Iraq. His remarks came in a series of interviews this week tied to the second anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

In one interview, with ABC's Good Morning America program, Mr. Wolfowitz suggests senior al-Qaida personnel, not just ordinary fighters, are involved in Iraq.

"We know a great many of bin Laden's key lieutenants are now trying to organize in cooperation with old loyalists from the Saddam regime to attack in Iraq," he said.

Mr. Wolfowitz gives no details. But in another interview, this one with the BBC, he specifically says al-Qaida members were "in Iraq before the war; they were there during the war; they're there now."

And in yet another interview, with The Washington Post, the deputy defense secretary says the numbers of anti-American forces now in Iraq include "thousands of former Baathists and some hundreds of al-Qaida and other foreign terrorists who are killing Americans and Iraqis."

Asked about the new claims, Pentagon officials offer no details, indicating Mr. Wolfowitz was referring to sensitive new intelligence information.

But intelligence officials contacted by VOA say they are unable to corroborate his comments.

The Bush administration was accused before the war of exaggerating claims about contacts between Saddam Hussein's regime and al-Qaida in a bid to justify U.S. military action against Iraq.

The administration's claims about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction have also come under criticism, especially since U.S. forces have failed to find any chemical or biological weapons since seizing control of the country.