WASHINGTON (AP) – Al-Qaida operatives are planning to strike at U.S. and allied forces taking part in a war in Iraq, according to information acquired by American intelligence agencies, counterterrorism officials said Saturday.
The operatives are subordinates of Abu Musab Zarqawi, whom CIA officials describe as a senior associate of Osama bin Laden. Some are in Baghdad; others are elsewhere in Iraq, the counterterrorism officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The intelligence does not suggest any kind of coordination between the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaida operatives; instead officials believe the terrorists are looking to capitalize on the chaos created by any military conflict to strike at American and allied troops.
A CIA report, passed to senior government officials last week, warned of the potential strikes. A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
The New York Times first reported the information Saturday on its Web site.
The counterterrorism officials said operatives may be planning to use explosives or toxins to conduct the attack.
The new information comes against a murky backdrop regarding whether Iraq supports al-Qaida, or to what extent there are ties.
However, intelligence officials have generally agreed they have nothing to document that Saddam Hussein had a hand in the Sept. 11 attacks or that Saddam and Osama bin Laden are coordinating terrorist operations.
At the center of U.S. allegations that there are links between Iraq and the terrorist group is Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist operative, and some of his followers.
CIA Director George Tenet and others have described Zarqawi as a senior associate of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, but officials acknowledge some difference of opinion within U.S. intelligence whether it is correct to describe him as a member of the organization.
Zarqawi has been linked to the failed millennium bombing of a tourist hotel in Jordan and the killing of an American diplomat in Amman in October.
According to U.S. officials, Zarqawi was in Baghdad last summer, presumably with the knowledge of Iraqi officials.