A top Al Qaeda operative was in Baghdad about two months ago, and U.S. officials suspect his presence was known to the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a defense official said Wednesday.
Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian, is believed to have left Iraq, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. U.S. counterterrorism officials have called Zarqawi -- also known as Ahmad Fadeel al-Khalaylah -- one of Al Qaeda's top two dozen leaders.
His activities and contacts in Iraq are not known, but his presence in Baghdad apparently was a factor in the Bush administration's recent volley of allegations of Al Qaeda contacts with the Iraqi government.
As the United States threatens war against Iraq, the administration has sought to play up reports of those contacts to further vilify Saddam.
However, some U.S. officials say the Al Qaeda presence is far greater in countries like Yemen and Pakistan, and contend the United States has no solid evidence of Iraq and Al Qaeda working together to conduct terrorist operations.
Because Baghdad is tightly controlled by Saddam's internal security forces, some officials said it is unlikely Zarqawi could have been in the city without the government's knowledge.
Officials believe Zarqawi and bin Laden operations chief Abu Zubaydah were chief organizers of a foiled plot to bomb the Radisson SAS Hotel, in Amman, Jordan, which is popular with American and Israeli tourists.
The attack was to take place during millennium celebrations, but Jordanian authorities stopped it in late 1999. Abu Zubaydah was captured in March in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in a raid by the CIA, FBI and Pakistani authorities. He's now being interrogated by U.S. officials.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Zarqawi has been mobile, unlike some Al Qaeda leaders who are believed to have remained in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was in Afghanistan when the U.S. began bombing Taliban and Al Qaeda targets last October. He fled to Iran, and U.S. officials suspect the government there also knew of his presence.
But the Iranians did not detain him, and he left Iran, officials have said. This led to U.S. accusations earlier this year that Iran was obstructing the U.S. war on terrorism. Iran denied sheltering any Al Qaeda figures.
Officials declined to discuss what they know of Zarqawi's current whereabouts, but he's the second Al Qaeda operative who has been reported in Baghdad this year.
The other, Ahmad Hikmat Shakir, is a native Iraqi, and may have simply gone home, officials said. It is unknown if he has had any contacts with the Iraqi government.
Shakir, 37, was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000, the same time two eventual Sept. 11 hijackers met with another senior Al Qaeda leader. But officials don't know for certain if Shakir attended the meeting.
He was an associate of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who is in a U.S. prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Shakir left his home in Qatar in October 2001, for Amman, where he was detained by Jordanian authorities for several months. But the Jordanians released him and he is thought to have gone to Iraq.
Last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice accused Iraq of ties to Al Qaeda, citing intelligence suggesting the presence of Al Qaeda leaders in Baghdad.
"Since we began after September 11th, we do have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of Al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad," Rumsfeld said.
They also said Al Qaeda sought chemical and biological weapons assistance from Iraq. Rumsfeld said that information Al Qaeda and Iraq cooperated on such weapons came from "one report," suggesting the information hasn't been corroborated.
Contacts between the government and the terrorist organization date back several years. In 1998, the Iraqi ambassador to Turkey traveled to Afghanistan to meet with Al Qaeda leaders, U.S. officials have said.
However, U.S. counterterrorism officials say they have obtained no credible evidence that would tie Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks. They doubt a reported meeting in the Czech Republic between chief hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent ever took place, although some Czech officials have stood by the report.
Some Islamic extremists with ties to Al Qaeda have turned up in northern Iraq, in Kurdish territory that is beyond Saddam's control. And other Al Qaeda operatives are believed to have passed through Iraq on their way from Afghanistan to their home countries on the Arabian peninsula.