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Sources: Senior al Qaeda official may have been in Iraq

From Mike Boettcher and Henry Schuster


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CNN's Mike Boettcher reports on Abu Mussab al Zarqawi, a senior al Qaeda leader who might be a link between al Qaeda and Iraq. (January 23)
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(CNN) -- A senior al Qaeda leader may provide a link between that terrorist group and Iraq, according to coalition intelligence sources.

Abu Mussab al Zarqawi -- a Jordanian -- was recently accused by Jordanian officials of masterminding the assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman in late October.

And Zarqawi has been linked to some of the men arrested recently in London and accused of possessing the deadly poison ricin.

But it is his travels, especially in the past year, that have attracted the attention of intelligence officials.

Zarqawi, coalition intelligence sources said, left Afghanistan when the Taliban regime was toppled. From there, said the sources, he traveled through Iran to Baghdad, then to Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq, where Ansar al-Islam, a group linked to al Qaeda, operates.

Some in the U.S. intelligence community have questioned whether officials in these countries were aware of Zarqawi's presence, because he might have been using aliases.

But former CIA operative Robert Baer, who spent years in the Middle East, disagreed.

"Somebody at some level had to know he was there. Now obviously I can't tell you whether Saddam knew, but somebody in an official line of responsibility for customs and immigration knew he came into the country," Baer said.

"Palestinians, other Arabs, even Iraqis go through a very tight screen when they come into that country. Documents are looked at. You just can't do it [sneak in]. It is a police state."

Coalition intelligence sources say Zarqawi also traveled to Syria and Lebanon, moving with seeming ease between those countries, setting up terrorist cells. These sources say Zarqawi is believed now to be in Iran.

According to U.S. sources, Zarqawi was the person to whom President Bush referred in an October 8 speech in Cincinnati, Ohio, when he sought to point to a connection between al Qaeda and Iraq.

"Some al Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks," Bush said.

Now, U.S. sources have linked Zarqawi to the arrests in London of several men accused of possessing ricin. Sources also said evidence was found in al Qaeda safe houses in Afghanistan of the organization's interest in ricin.

Zarqawi was convicted in Jordan in absentia of planning to bomb tourist sites and hotels during millennium celebrations as part of a series of al Qaeda attack plots worldwide. He evaded arrest and escaped to Afghanistan.

Baer called Zarqawi a very serious threat who manages to bring together very different terrorist groups, including groups representing both Sunni and Shia Muslims.

"The names are irrelevant. I say bin Laden could die today and it's going to make no difference to the organization. Somebody's going to carry on. Zarqawi will. He knows where to get money," he said.

Coalition intelligence sources said Zarqawi's primary focus seems to have been planning attacks in Jordan.

Salem Sa'ed Salem bin Suweid, a Libyan national, and Yasser Fathi Ibraheem, a Jordanian, were arrested and have confessed to carrying out the Foley assassination at Zarqawi's direction, according to Jordanian authorities.

The Jordanian officials said the men got money and weapons from Zarqawi, who was reportedly planning more attacks.

The trial of bin Suweid and Ibraheem is expected to begin in Jordan in the next few weeks. When it does, there could be even more important clues about Zarqawi -- and his connections to other countries in the region, including Iraq.

CNN has asked Iraq for its reaction and is waiting for its response.

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