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Iran 'holding senior al Qaeda men'

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.  President Bush has accused Iran and Syria of continuing to
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. President Bush has accused Iran and Syria of continuing to "harbor and assist terrorists."

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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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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Four top al Qaeda leaders are in custody in Iran, including the terrorist group's military leader and its spokesman, U.S. officials say.

The four have been in custody for at least six weeks, U.S. officials told CNN terrorism expert Peter Bergen on Wednesday.

Saif Al Adel, al Qaeda's military chief, is one of those in custody, as is Suleiman Abu Ghaith, along with two other al Qaeda members, the officials said.

Saif Al Adel is wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of two U.S. Embassies in east Africa.

Earlier Wednesday in Tehran, Iran intelligence minister confirmed reports that had been circulating for weeks, announcing his country was holding several al Qaeda members.

"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 name any of those in custody, and a senior Iranian official told CNN Iran has no intention of sharing those names with the United States.

The official cited several reasons for not revealing the identities, including:

• Iran has received a "number of threats" from al Qaeda that attacks could be carried out in that country, as in Saudi Arabia;

• The United States is negotiating with the People's Mujahedeen, an Iranian-backed group in Iraq, to surrender or disarm.

However, the official said that Iran could be "ready to extradite some" of the suspected terrorists to other countries, while others would likely stand trial in Iran.

Accusations

In the wake of the May 12 suicide attacks against several Western housing compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, some in the Bush administration have accused Iran of deliberately harboring al Qaeda terrorists who may have been involved in planning those attacks.

Iran says the United States last May provided it with a list of names of suspected al Qaeda members believed to be in Iran.

At the time, Iran said it would look into the matter but was unaware of where these individuals might be.

A senior Iranian official in Washington on Wednesday refused to say whether there was an overlap between the U.S. list and the group of al Qaeda suspects now in custody.

But the official said Iran denies that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's number two man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is among those in Iranian custody.

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 Adel.

Other sources have said that Mohammed al Masri, an important al Qaeda trainer, and Abu al Khayr are in Iran.

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.

-- CNN State Department correspondent Andrea Koppel and Journalist Shirzad Bozorgmehr contributed to this report.


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