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Top al Qaeda leaders held - Iran

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Iran says it has senior al Qaeda members in custody but what does it mean for the coalition's efforts in Iraq.
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TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Iran is holding "a large number" of top al Qaeda leaders, the country's intelligence minister told reporters Wednesday, but he would not name any of those in custody.

"A large number of them have been deported already, and a number of them are currently in our custody," said Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi.

He would not comment on reports that al Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith or Saif al'Adl, now believed to be al Qaeda's military commander, were being held in Iran.

U.S. and coalition intelligence officials have told CNN for months that several top al Qaeda leaders are believed to be in Iran, including Abu Ghaith and al'Adl. Other sources have said that Mohammed al Masri, an important al Qaeda trainer, and Abu al Khayr are in Iran.

The Iranian intelligence minister declined comment on reports that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was in Iranian custody.

U.S. officials have said they have no evidence that Zawahiri has been in Iran, but do believe say Abu al Khayr is one of his top deputies.

Iran has said before that it was holding al Qaeda members, but Yunesi's comments marked the first time Tehran has indicated that senior al Qaeda operatives were in custody. A U.S. official said last week that Iran has never told Washington who it was holding.

Kuwait's interior minister, Sheikh Muhammed Khaled al-Ahmad al Sabah, told a Saudi newspaper last week that Iran had offered to hand Abu Ghaith over to Kuwait. But he said he turned down the offer, since Abu Ghaith's Kuwaiti citizenship has been stripped and he is no longer a citizen of the Persian Gulf emirate.

On Monday, President George W. Bush accused Iran and Syria of continuing to "harbor and assist terrorists" and warned that "states that support terror will be held accountable." Both countries have denied those allegations.

"Wherever we learn of some clues about people connected to al Qaeda, we launch intelligence operations and arrest them," Yunesi said. "We are firm on this, because we consider it our duty to do so."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday he was unaware of Yunesi's comments but "We continue to have concerns about Iran's support and harboring of terrorists."

"It's very clear to Iran what they need to do," McClellan said. "Iran at this point is one of just a few state sponsors of terrorists, and they are one that stands out above some of the others."

The U.S. State Department called Iran "the most active state sponsor of terrorism" in 2002, accusing Tehran of supporting Palestinian and central Asian militant groups and having a "mixed" record regarding al Qaeda.

"While it has detained and turned over to foreign governments a number of al Qaeda members, other al Qaeda members have found virtual safe haven there," the department's most recent report on global terrorism concluded.

-- Journalist Shirzad Bozorgmehr contributed to this report

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