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U.S. Foresees Threat From Iraqi Agents

Officials say 'credible information' exists that cells activated by Baghdad could attack in Europe and elsewhere in Mideast in event of war.

March 05, 2003|Michael Slackman and Robin Wright | Times Staff Writers

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The United States has "credible information" that Baghdad has dispatched agents to many parts of the world to commit terrorist acts in the event of a U.S. invasion of Iraq, a well-placed Western diplomat said here Tuesday.

The agents are poised to strike targets in the Middle East and Europe, raising concerns among Western officials that the U.S. will be unable to confine a war with Iraq to the battlefield of its choice, according to the diplomat, who spoke on condition that neither he nor his country be identified.

"We have credible information that this is something the Iraqis have planned and are ready to carry out -- not just in Saudi Arabia," said the diplomat, who has many years of experience in the Middle East. "We think it's very serious, not just here, but worldwide as well."

If Iraqi agents are indeed waiting in different corners of the globe, organized in sleeper cells that will be activated when a war starts, it would be another example of Baghdad preparing to fight a war on its own terms, hoping to counter the United States' far superior conventional military strength.

Iraqi officials have already said, for instance, that they would try to lure attacking forces into urban areas, where Iraqis might have a fighting chance. Terrorism would provide another front for Iraq.

"The concern is not that there is a credible Iraqi military threat," the diplomat said. "We are concerned about the increased likelihood of terrorist attacks."

In the past, U.S. officials have said that one of the main reasons for launching an attack on Iraq is to prevent President Saddam Hussein from developing weapons of mass destruction and then delivering those weapons into the hands of terrorist groups. Now, the U.S. is fearful that Iraq is poised to use its own agents as terrorists, although there is no information that any have been armed with weapons of mass destruction.

In Washington, officials confirmed Tuesday that U.S. intelligence agencies have picked up "a lot of chatter" on the Iraqi intelligence circuit in the last month that has led to warnings at several major U.S. embassies. Among those have been the missions in Egypt, Thailand and South Africa, the officials said.

The intelligence community believes that the chatter is either "willing disinformation to wind us up" or refers to assets in place that the United States does not know about, said a well-placed U.S. official who requested anonymity.

"Either way," the official said, "we have to prepare for it."

Washington has no solid estimate of either the numbers involved or their capabilities, the source said. One source said that the U.S. is sufficiently in the dark that it is unsure whether the threat is from "five guys working out of a single apartment" or something much bigger.

Because of the new concerns about the sleeper cells, some U.S. officials were surprised to see a lowering of the national terrorism alert level last week from orange to yellow.

Some key personnel believe that the chatter is probably disinformation, although it "outstrips" what the United States has seen or tapped in the past, the U.S. official added. Over the last decade, U.S. intelligence has kept a close and effective watch on Iraqi intelligence.

Another knowledgeable U.S. official in Washington confirmed that authorities have received "credible information" about Iraqi terrorist cells having been sent to several cities overseas, where they are believed to be poised to attack Americans or U.S. institutions.

"They did it before, in the Gulf War," said the official, who declined to be named.

During the 1991 war, the United States uncovered a number of sleeper operations, including a potentially major plot to attack U.S. targets and interests in Thailand's capital, Bangkok. Iraqi intelligence was also linked to an alleged assassination attempt on former President Bush during a visit he paid to Kuwait in 1993.

In 1991, the Iraqi efforts failed, U.S. officials have said. This time, however, U.S. officials believe that Iraq may be more effective.

Key U.S. ally Jordan, for example, has several hundred thousand Iraqi expatriates living within its borders -- many of whom arrived after the last war. Jordanian officials have become increasingly concerned that Iraqi intelligence has infiltrated the country and, in the event of war, would do what it could to destabilize the kingdom. As part of an overall security effort, the government has been rounding up large numbers of Iraqis without proper visas and sending them back to Iraq.

"Jordan is a place [where] Iraqis have been able to operate on the ground," the diplomat said.

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