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Report: Extremists push for terror haven in Iraq

From Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

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Acts of terror
Iraq
State Department

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sunni and Shiite extremist groups are working inside Iraq to create a terrorist haven, where foreign fighters can operate, a U.S. State Department report said Friday.

Militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq group and others "view Iraq as a potential safe haven and are attempting to make it a reality," said the annual report on worldwide terrorism.

The study said Syria and Iran, whom the United States consider to be state sponsors of terror, are supporting terrorists in Iraq.

Syria "was used as a facilitation hub for terrorist groups operating in Iraq" and Iran "has provided political and ideological support for several terrorist and militant groups active in Iraq," the report found.

It also noted the "proliferation of smaller looser networks that are less capable but also less predictable."

These terrorist groups loosely associated with al Qaeda "represent the most prominent current terrorist threat to the United States" and allies because they are "smaller, harder to detect and more difficult to counter," the report found.

"These micro-actors are launching more attacks, and they are more local and more lethal," said a senior State Department official involved in the preparation of the report.

The study found al Qaeda's senior leadership is mostly scattered and on the run and said it "often inspired terrorist activity but could not direct it as fully in the past."

The senior official described al Qaeda as "crippled and constrained without the strategic network" it once had but said there are indications the terrorist group is planning a spectacular attack on U.S. soil.

"We have not been able to deliver the knockout punch to al Qaeda, and there is no doubt they are in the planning stages for something big," the official said, adding that Osama bin Laden and deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri might settle for something less due to their diminished capacity.

The report suggested bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are in a power struggle with al-Zarqawi, the al Qaeda in Iraq leader.

"There is evidence that core leaders are somewhat frustrated by their lack of direct control," the report said, citing a letter by bin Laden's aide to al-Zarqawi criticizing his tactics, trying to influence his strategy and seeking financial support.

The report cites Iraq as a "key front" in the war on terrorism.

The official acknowledged that Iraq has become "both a war and a cause," which has further radicalized Muslims.

The study suggested al-Zarqawi wants to expand his influence worldwide, noting that his network has claimed responsibility for November suicide attacks at an Amman, Jordan, hotel and an August strike against U.S. Navy ships in the Jordanian port of Aqaba.

Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria remained on the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

The senior official said the Bush administration was "encouraged" by Libya's progress, but some issues still remained on "verification and compliance" before Tripoli could be taken off the list.

Sudan also has cooperated in the war on terrorism and met most U.S. benchmarks, the official said, but its government's involvement in Darfur's "horrors" preclude Khartoum from being taken off the list.

Figures in this year's report are up because of congressional legislation mandating that countries' domestic acts of terrorism be counted as well.

For example, deaths as a result of sectarian attacks among Iraq's ethnic groups will be counted as well as about 30,000 kidnappings by Maoist rebels in Nepal.

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