WASHINGTON – A handful of senior Al Qaeda operatives who fled to Iran after the Afghan war may have developed a working relationship with a secretive military unit linked to Iran's religious hard-liners, American counterterrorism officials say.
The U.S. government isn't certain of the extent of the contacts with the Iranian unit, called the Qods Force (search), say the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The operatives include some of the most senior members of Al Qaeda who haven't been captured or killed by the United States and its allies. Their presence in Iran, probably starting in late 2001 or early 2002, has confounded efforts to knock out the group's remaining top operations chiefs.
But it is unclear whether Iran has them in custody or is letting them operate freely, according to U.S. and allied intelligence services.
The Bush administration has called for Iran to detain and hand them over.
On Wednesday, President Bush said it would improve Iranian-U.S. relations "if we end up reaching an agreement on the Al Qaeda that they hold."
Iranian officials have said they have some Al Qaeda operatives in custody and plan to turn them over to their home countries. Details are always slim.
U.S. and Saudi officials suspect that the Al Qaeda operatives based in Iran coordinated the May bombings of housing complexes in Riyadh that killed 35, including nine bombers.
Complicating matters is the divide between Iran's religious and secular authorities. Officials from the secular government, represented by President Mohammad Khatami (search), say the government does not support Al Qaeda.
But the Qods Force — Al Qaeda's possible contact — reports to religious authorities, not Khatami, U.S. intelligence officials say. A Saudi official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also raised the possibility of rogue operations within the Iranian government, unknown to higher authorities.
All this adds up to U.S. uncertainty. "Iran keeps sending out mixed signals" regarding Al Qaeda, said Stan Bedlington, a former terrorism analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. "It hasn't really got its act together."
The 1,000-man Qods unit, whose name also means "Jerusalem Force," has a twofold purpose: to defeat insurgency inside Iran and to promote Iran's Islamic revolution in other countries through proxy forces, officials said. It has contacts with Lebanese Hezbollah (search), various Palestinian groups and groups in Egypt, Bahrain and Algeria.
A recent U.S. intelligence report said the unit's primary military missions are "to direct or assist in the training, organization, arming, and activities of fundamentalist foreign nationals from Muslim countries, with the aim of overthrowing their governments and establishing regimes similar in ideology to the Islamic Republic of Iran."
One of the Egyptian groups — Egyptian Islamic Jihad (search) — is now considered merged with Al Qaeda. Some of its former high-ranking operatives are among those thought to be in Iran.
U.S. officials declined to say why the Qods Force has their attention as a possible Al Qaeda contact, beyond noting its history of working with terrorist groups.
The Al Qaeda operatives are believed to have fled to Iran from neighboring Afghanistan during the Taliban's fall in late 2001 or early 2002. American and Saudi officials say intelligence reports suggest several of bin Laden's top echelon have been there. The Saudi official characterized them as "Al Qaeda's board of directors."
But it is unclear who remains and it's possible some come and go. Several seem centered in far-eastern Iran in a smuggler's haven where Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran meet, officials said.
Different factions inside Iran might view them differently:
— As terrorist allies, they would bring a wealth of experience and contacts.
— As prisoners, they could become a bargaining chip in negotiations with the United States.
Already, the U.S. and French governments have cracked down on Iranian exiles who make up the Mujahedeen Khalq (search) (MEK) and National Council of Resistance of Iran (search), two groups trying to overthrow Iran's theocracy.
In August, Secretary of State Colin Powell ordered closed two Washington offices of the groups, eliciting rare praise from Iran. The groups had previously been allowed to operate despite their listing as terrorist groups by the United States and European Union.
The groups accuse the United States and France of acting to appease Iran. But it is unclear what recent actions the U.S. government is taking toward MEK fighters in Iraq, who had been supported by Saddam Hussein.
American warplanes bombed MEK sites during the Iraq war, and the group capitulated and agreed to disarm. But Iran may want the U.S. government to do more to group members in Iraq — such as turning them over to Iranian authorities — before it will negotiate over the Al Qaeda operatives.