WASHINGTON—U.S. troops in Iraq have arrested a group of suspected Islamic militants who intelligence officials believe are associated with the al-Qaida terrorist network, administration officials said Tuesday.
The officials, who cautioned that the suspects are still being interrogated and that information about their identities remains "squishy," said U.S. soldiers acting on information supplied by the Central Intelligence Agency arrested the men in Baghdad several days ago.
Although the officials also said that the United States so far has found no evidence that Saddam Hussein provided weapons or other material support to al-Qaida or cooperated in planning terrorist operations, the arrests could help bolster the Bush administration's allegations that terrorists affiliated with al-Qaida were operating in Iraq.
The administration's pre-war case against Iraq, and especially its allegations that Saddam Hussein's regime had chemical and biological weapons and ties to al-Qaida, has come under increasing scrutiny lately as U.S. troops in Iraq have failed to find either the weapons or the terrorist ties.
The officials said those arrested included several suspected associates of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Palestinian described by the Bush administration as "an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida lieutenants."
The group also included suspected members of Ansar al Islam, or Partisans of Islam, a Kurdish Islamic extremist group, the officials said.
The officials provided no further details of the arrests, but said there's evidence that Zarqawi's group directed terrorist operations in the Middle East and Western Europe.
The intelligence officials said they believe the group in the Iraqi capital oversaw a plot in London to manufacture ricin, a deadly toxin made from castor beans; plotted the murder in October of U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley in Jordan; and was planning other terrorist attacks in Western Europe.
The intelligence officials said Saddam's regime apparently allowed Zarqawi's group to operate with impunity, in much the same way that administration officials charge that senior al-Qaida leaders have been directing terrorist operations from sanctuary in neighboring Iran.
One official said it's impossible to believe that Saddam's ubiquitous internal security and intelligence apparatus was unaware of Zarqawi's Baghdad cell or its operations.
He also noted that Zarqawi had a leg amputated while he was in Baghdad, the result of wounds suffered in Afghanistan.
U.S. intelligence officials, speaking on the condition that they not be identified because of the classified nature of the case, said there's evidence that Zarqawi himself is now in Iran.
"There are questions about whether he is in custody or not," said a senior U.S. official.
Iran denies the allegations, and says it's arrested some al-Qaida members.
But the U.S. officials stressed that they've found no evidence so far that the former Iraqi regime provided weapons or other support to al-Qaida. So far, one official said, the Iraq-based terrorists appear to have had no chemical or biological weapons other than homemade ricin and several varieties of poisonous chlorine gas, which they also appear to have concocted themselves.
U.S. officials disagree about whether Zarqawi and his followers are members of al-Qaida or merely support bin Laden's brand of extremism and cooperate in his terrorist operations.
Zarqawi, the officials said, also oversaw a separate group of Islamic militants who found refuge Ansar al Islam in a part of Iraq that was not controlled by Saddam.
During the war, Kurdish guerrillas, backed by U.S. Special Forces and U.S. aircraft, recaptured a sliver of territory in northern Iraq over which Ansar had imposed harsh, Taliban-style Islamic rule.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.