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U.S. officials: Iraqi insurgents educating Afghan, Pakistani militants

WASHINGTON—Islamic militants in Iraq are providing military training and other assistance to Taliban and al Qaida fighters from eastern and southern Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas, U.S. intelligence officials told Knight Ridder.

A small number of Pakistani and Afghan militants are receiving military training in Iraq; Iraqi fighters have met with Afghan and Pakistani extremists in Pakistan; and militants in Afghanistan increasingly are using homemade bombs, suicide attacks and other tactics honed in Iraq, said U.S. intelligence officials and others who track the issue.

Several Afghan and Pakistani "exchange students" volunteered to join the fight against American and Iraqi forces in Iraq, but were told to return to Afghanistan and Pakistan to train other militants there, two U.S. intelligence officials said. They and other officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because the intelligence is highly classified.

The intelligence suggests that if the trend continues, American forces, already contending with escalating violence in Iraq, could face the same thing in Afghanistan in the coming months, further complicating the Bush administration's plans to withdraw some troops.

"The worst case would be if the terrorists in both places are becoming more connected, and that they either want to take some of the heat off the jihadists in Iraq or that they figure we're stretched too thin in both places, so they're going to try to turn up the heat in both," one U.S. intelligence official said.

Al-Qaida's role in the contacts among militants from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan isn't entirely clear, said Seth Jones, a specialist on Afghanistan at the RAND Corp., a consulting firm that advises U.S. government agencies.

But he added that "there is substantial speculation that it is al-Qaida or affiliated groups" that are arranging the exchanges.

"I think there is absolutely no question that the partial evidence strongly suggests that there have been increasing contacts between Afghan insurgents and Iraqi insurgents either in Iraq itself or in Pakistan, the trails going in both directions," Jones said.

Militants traveling to or from Iraq mostly are making their way on routes used by drug traffickers and smugglers through Pakistan's province of Baluchistan, where government forces are facing a tribal insurgency, and southern Iran, the two American intelligence officials said.

They said there was no solid evidence that Iran's Islamic regime was arranging, financing or aiding what one of the U.S. intelligence officials called "terrorist Route 66."

But it's possible that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, other paramilitary groups or some local officials may be turning a blind eye to the traffic, perhaps in exchange for bribes, the officials said.

While religious and ethnic violence is swelling in Iraq, Afghanistan has witnessed a surge in attacks by the Taliban, many of them apparently aimed at testing NATO troops from Britain, Canada and the Netherlands as they begin taking over security duties in the south from American forces.

The U.S. intelligence officials said the relatively small number of Afghan and Pakistani militants going to Iraq were receiving a professional military education from foreign terrorists and Iraqis tied to al-Qaida, then returning home to train other fighters.

Tactics that have proved effective in Iraq, especially homemade bombs, suicide and car bombs, and secondary ambushes—in which troops, police and emergency workers are hit as they respond to an initial attack—increasingly are being used in Afghanistan, they said.

"Everybody accepts that there has been a qualitative shift in the sophistication of these attacks," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence expert who's now at the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan research center.

American officials suspect that the training and transfer of tactics have been discussed among Iraqi insurgents and Afghan and Pakistani militants in at least two recent meetings in Pakistan, said an expert who asked not to be further identified.

The Bush administration has been pressing Pakistan's leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to develop a comprehensive plan to halt the infiltration of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters from Pakistan into Afghanistan, several experts said.

In response, they said, Pakistan quietly has sought American assistance to seal parts of the 1,500-mile border of massive mountains and plunging valleys with a fence and minefields, an idea that one U.S. official called "absolutely idiotic."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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