WASHINGTON - The CIA has warned that terrorists based in Iraq are planning attacks against U.S. and allied forces inside the country after any invasion, government counterterrorism officials say.
The agency's previously undisclosed assessment has circulated among senior Bush administration officials. It describes the risks of terror attacks on U.S. forces inside Iraq if an invasion occurs and the danger of similar attacks on troops already massing in the region.
The assessment goes beyond the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's military forces, predicting for the first time that groups that the Bush administration has said are given haven by Hussein's government might become engaged in the war, even if Iraq's military is defeated and the government overthrown. The administration has said that terrorists operating inside Iraq are affiliated with al-Qaida, and that they are either tolerated by the Baghdad government or are based in parts of the country where the government exercises little control.
The conclusions are based on recently collected intelligence in the form of intercepted communications, "glimpses" of four to eight midlevel operatives said to have been spotted in Iraq and an analysis of the organization's prior tactics, according to administration officials.
"The al-Qaida network is intent on attacking U.S. interests throughout Iraq, as are other extremist Islamic groups," said one official who has read the CIA threat assessment.
Array of intelligence
The assessment is just one part of the array of intelligence being gathered by government agencies as part of the continuing campaign against terrorism, and is particularly important to the military as the United States and Britain gather their forces for a possible attack on Iraq.
It suggests that terrorist fighters might blend in with the Iraqi civilian population to get close enough to conduct strikes against allied troops during an invasion, officials said. Or they might attack U.S. forces trying to stabilize Iraq after a war.
Terrorists might employ conventional explosives, or they might use unspecified "toxins," according to one official, quoting from the assessment. It is thought the attacks are being planned as "independent terrorist operations," conducted by individuals or small groups rather than controlled by Iraqi military planners, an official said.
Presenting evidence to prove a direct connection between al-Qaida and Iraq has been one of the most contentious aspects of the Bush administration's efforts to make its case for disarming Hussein. But this assessment appears to have been prepared to help the military remain on guard, rather than to support the case for military action. Even so, its disclosure could strengthen the administration's case that the campaign against terrorism is linked to the goal of unseating the Iraqi leader. Critics of the administration's stance on Iraq have questioned its assertion that the Baghdad government has tolerated or supported the Qaida terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden.
A map accompanying the CIA assessment states that a cell of up to two dozen operatives had been set up in Baghdad, echoing a charge made by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in his speech Feb. 5 at the United Nations.
The CIA document identifies four followers in Baghdad, described by one official as "second- or third-tier leaders." U.S. officials who discussed the assessment declined to name those al-Qaida lieutenants.
Smaller cells also are believed to be operating in Mosul and Erbil, in northern Iraq, according to the analysis.
The CIA report said those cells were organized by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a poisons expert and terror recruiter who in recent weeks has been identified by Powell and other administration officials as an important link between Iraq and al-Qaida. With the recent capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, al-Qaida's chief of operations, other lieutenants - including Zarqawi - could assume a larger role, intelligence and law enforcement officials said.
In his presentation to the United Nations last month, Powell said Zarqawi began recruiting terrorists shortly after he arrived in Baghdad in May. Powell said that nearly two dozen militants joined Zarqawi and established a base of operations there, and that 116 suspected terrorists linked to Zarqawi had been arrested in Europe in recent weeks.
Goal: `Dead Americans'
In Iraq, the CIA threat assessment says, the Qaida cells had organized freely, "but it doesn't make a big deal of al-Qaida and Saddam," said one official who has read the analysis. "There's a confluence of interests, to be sure," the official said. "And that's dead Americans."
The threat assessment also cites intelligence reports indicating that in northern Iraq, including Kurdish areas, 100 to 200 al-Qaida operatives are believed to be working, along with 450 to 700 members of the extremist Islamic group Ansar al-Islam.
The executive summary of the report said its information was gathered by the CIA; the National Security Agency, which specializes in electronic intelligence gathering; and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which provides surveillance.
One official familiar with the report said it appeared that as the military buildup around Iraq had accelerated, so had planning by al-Qaida for attacks - which might explain a recent surge in communications by the terror network, and increased opportunities for listening in.