WASHINGTON — The State Department on Tuesday identified Iran, not Iraq, as the country that most actively sponsors international terrorism.
The finding was significant because the Bush administration is drawing up plans to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, arguing that Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction and terrorist ties threaten the United States.
The report provides no new evidence of Iraqi terrorist activity or any link between Iraq and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
By contrast, the report cites Iran's growing links to Middle East terrorism. It says Iran has intensified its backing for Palestinian groups that oppose Israel's existence, supplying them and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia with "varying amounts of funding, safe haven, training and weapons," the department said in its annual terrorism report.
Some Iranians want to end Tehran's longtime support for terrorism, but "hard-liners who hold the reins of power continue to thwart any efforts to moderate these policies," it said.
President Bush last January named Iran and Iraq, along with North Korea, as members of an "axis of evil," countries that are developing weapons of mass destruction and might share them with terrorist groups.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld reiterated that warning Tuesday. "We have to recognize that terrorist networks have relationships with terrorist states that have weapons of mass destruction, and that they inevitably are going to get their hands on them and they would not hesitate one minute in using them," he told a Senate panel.
While the Bush administration has offered to talk with Iran and North Korea, the president decided earlier this year to seek Saddam's ouster and ordered U.S. agencies to come up with plans to do so.
Civilian officials under Rumsfeld are pushing for the United States to invade Iraq, arguing that its regime is a major sponsor of anti-American terrorism and may have played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Claims by Czech intelligence services that Mohamed Atta, the suspected ringleader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, met an Iraqi agent in Prague in April 2001 have "not been confirmed," said retired Gen. Francis X. Taylor, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator.
"I don't know of any direct connection" between Iraq and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network, which is thought to be behind the attacks, Taylor said.
The report says the Iraqi regime focuses mostly on dissident Iraqis overseas. The CIA shares that assessment.
The report credits two of the seven nations on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism - Sudan and Libya - with progress in ending their links to terrorism in response to Bush's post-Sept. 11 demands. The other three countries are Cuba, North Korea and Syria.
Sudan and Libya "seem closest to understanding what they must do to get out of the terrorism business, and each has taken measures pointing it in the right direction," it said.
Sudan has shared intelligence on al-Qaida with the United States and moved to expel some of its members, and Libya has provided information on a local Islamic group with links to al-Qaida, U.S. officials have said.
Even Iran has taken limited steps to cooperate with the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign, the report said. Tehran's support for violent groups in Africa, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf is declining, it said. "There is no evidence of Iranian sponsorship or foreknowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States," the report said.
The worst international terrorist attack in history struck the United States last year, accounting for more than 3,000 of the year's 3,547 terrorist-related deaths. But the number of terrorist attacks declined in 2001. There were 346, compared with 426 in 2000.
2007 McClatchy Newspapers