NEW YORK – Al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants took a shipment of deadly chemical weapons out of Iraq, according to an intelligence report recently received by U.S. officials.
Fox News on Thursday confirmed that White House officials have reviewed the intelligence message, first reported in The Washington Post, that Islamic extremists from the Al Qaeda-linked Asbat al-Ansar group took chemical weapons from Iraq last month or in late October.
Asbat al-Ansar, the Partisans' League, is included on a U.S. list of designated terrorists and is based in Lebanon.
Officials closely associated with the report said government analysts suspect the transaction involved the deadly nerve agent VX, and that a smuggler traveled through Turkey with it.
Iraqi government officials on Thursday vehemently denied the report, calling it nonsense.
A senior Bush administration official said the United States doesn't know for sure whether the material was nerve gas or whether the extremists were linked to the Iraqi government. It has not been confirmed that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein knew anything about the transfer.
If it came from the Iraqi government itself, then Saddam was likely involved. But if it came from northern Iraq, it could be a different story. That region, which borders Turkey, is controlled mainly by two Kurdish factions: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and its rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, headed by Barham Saleh.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan has been battling Al-Ansar for control of several towns in northern Iraq for the past few weeks.
Fox News on Thursday confirmed that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has in fact seen the intelligence report.
Speaking in Qatar, Rumsfeld said the possibility that Iraq may have provided such materials to Islamic extremists "should come as no surprise to anybody."
He told ABC's Good Morning America he had not seen the article, but "I have seen other information over a period of time that suggests that could be happening."
He said it had been known for many months, "probably years that the terrorist states have chemical weapons and have relationships with Al Qaeda, and that Al Qaeda is trying to get such weapons."
Rumsfeld has been visiting Camp As Sayliyah, where the U.S. Central Command has established a new command post and where Chief Tommy Franks is overseeing war game exercises. In a press conference later Thursday, Rumsfeld would not respond to questions about the Post report.
"I am inclined not to discuss intelligence information," he said.
Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and the only White House official authorized to speak on the topic, told the Post that the White House is concerned because of Al Qaeda's interest in obtaining and using weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons, "and we continue to seek evidence and intelligence information with regards to their planning activity."
"Have they obtained chemical weapons?" Johndroe said. "I do not have any hard, concrete evidence that they have ... there is no specific intelligence that limits Al Qaeda's interest to one particular chemical or biological weapon over the other."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer declined to comment on the report but said "we have long-standing concerns about Iraq providing weaponry to Al Qaeda."
The information was included in what's known as the Threat Matrix, a daily compilation of raw intelligence from around the globe on possible suicide bombings, infrastructure attacks and other terrorist threats against the United States. It is put together by the CIA.
The five-to 10 page document became a regular submission to President Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and is considered a must-read for U.S. national security officials.
"The way we gleaned the information makes us feel confident it is accurate," one official who was involved in the report told the Post. "I throw about 99 percent of the spot reports away when I look at them. I didn't throw this one away."
A senior Iraqi general on Thursday dismissed as "ridiculous" the reports that it supplied nerve gas to groups affiliated with terrorists.
"This is really a ridiculous assumption from the American administration," Lt. Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin told a news conference. "They know very well we have no prohibited substances."
He said Iraq has heard no such reports from his country's enemies, from the CIA, Britain, or Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.
What may give more credence to this was the report last month that Iraq had ordered unusually large amounts of atropine - a drug used to counter the effect of nerve gas - as well as a number of autoinjectors. It was suspected that the atropine was ordered from a supplier in Turkey.
"It is definitely raising some eyebrows around here," one U.S. official said then. "If it really means something, we don't know yet, but one can make an assumption."
But what wasn't known was whether Iraq had been able to purchase the atropine or if the substance was obtained through the Iraq Oil for Food Program.
On Thursday, it was reported that the United States and other U.N. countries have actually supplied Iraq with 3.5 million vials of atropine over the past five years for that program. But the U.S. government has been trying to convince the U.N. Security Council to place new restrictions on the sale of atropine, as well as other antibiotics for chemical and biological weapons, to Iraq.
The United States argued that although atropine is a "dual-use" item, which has both medicinal and weapons uses, it leaves open a loophole in the war on terror.
Atropine and Cipro -- used to treat exposure to anthrax and other infections -- have been added to a list of chemicals the United States wants on a list of items subject to more scrutiny by the U.N. Security Council before they're shipped to Iraq.
A source in the intelligence community, however, told Fox News that there's "no evidence to substantiate" the Post story. The source suspects the report "misread elements from five or six unrelated" pieces of intelligence, probably coming from the Iraqi National Congress.
The official said with all the pressure the CIA has been under from the White House to document a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda, if there were such a tie, intelligence officials would be happy to leak it.
Fox News' Bret Baier and The Associated Press contributed to this report.