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Saddam Cuts Off Terror Links

Although the U.S. government labels Iraq as a sponsor of terrorism, Saddam Hussein's government exports relatively little compared to some of its neighbors, U.S. officials say.

The chief threat to American interests from Iraq is from Saddam's chemical and biological weapons, and his quest for nuclear weapons, according to U.S. defense and intelligence officials. A secondary concern is that he could supply these weapons to terrorist groups, although there is no evidence he has done this, or intends to.

U.S. counterterrorism officials have been searching high and low for evidence linking Iraq to international terrorist networks -- in part to feed the appetites of those in the government who want reasons to depose Saddam. But they have come up with few hard connections.

Iran and Syria are accused of ties to far larger and more active terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah.

"The Iraqis have been very concerned about getting their hand caught in the cookie jar," said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief. "They're not doing terrorism against the United States and haven't been for a long time, as much as the people in the Defense Department would like to point to that as a reason to attack Saddam."

He said most of the terrorist groups and leaders located in Iraq were active in the 1980s but retired to Iraq to avoid international law enforcement efforts.

Probably the best-known terrorist group associated with Iraq is the Abu Nidal Organization, a splinter group of the Palestine Liberation Organization that primarily targets Arab moderates and Israel.

Its leader, whose real name is Sabri al-Banna, was found dead of gunshot wounds in Baghdad last week, according to Palestinian officials. Who killed him is unclear.

Abu Nidal moved to Iraq in 1998, according to the State Department's "Patterns of Global Terrorism" publication. Many of the group's followers come from Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

The Abu Nidal group is not known to have attacked Western targets since the 1980s.

The Palestinian Liberation Front, another splinter group, is also based in Iraq, according to the State Department. One faction of the group is believed responsible for the 1985 attack on the cruise ship Achillle Lauro, which led to the death of an American.

Iraq has also been making payments of up to $25,000 to families of Palestinian suicide bombers since the Israeli-Palestinian clashes began in September 2000.

The U.S. government also says Iraq supports the People's Mujahadeen of Iran, a group dedicated to the overthrow of the religious government of Iran. Iraq and Iran are enemies.

The State Department regards the group as a terrorist organization. However, a significant number within Congress oppose that designation, saying the United States should support the group's effort against the Iranian theocracy.

Iraq has not been conclusively linked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network. Officials say that while opposing the United States is a common goal, bin Laden's motivations are religious, while Saddam's are to seek secular power.

Some Al Qaeda members have turned up in Iraq, according to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others.

"Are there Al Qaeda in Iraq? The answer's yes, there are. It's a fact," he said Aug. 7.

But other officials say that doesn't mean Al Qaeda and Saddam's government are linked. Some small groups of Al Qaeda also have traveled through Iran and Iraq, but not to stay. Instead, U.S. officials say they returned to their home countries on the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere.

Nor does the United States have any evidence of Iraqi complicity in terrorists using Iraq as a transit corridor, officials said.

Many U.S. officials now discount reports that Mohammed Atta, the chief hijacker on Sept. 11, met with an Iraqi intelligence operative in Prague in April 2001.

The Iraqi government denied such a meeting ever occurred, and charged the reports were fabricated to justify making Iraq a target in the U.S.-led war on terror. Atta is now believed to have been in the United States during the time he was supposed to have been meeting with the Iraqi operative.

The Iraqi was being watched by Czech security officials because they feared he might be involved in plotting an attack on Radio Free Europe's offices, which are headquartered in Prague, Czech officials have said.

In 1993, U.S. warships fired 24 cruise missiles at Iraq's intelligence headquarters in Baghdad in retaliation for what the United States called a plot to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush.

Nevertheless, the former president's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, wrote this week in The Wall Street Journal there is little evidence of Saddam's ties to international terrorism.

"Indeed, Saddam's goals have little in common with the terrorists who threaten us, and there is little incentive for him to make common cause with them," he wrote.