WASHINGTON - A longtime Iraqi spy official, suspected of involvement in a plot to assassinate former President George Bush and of having links to al-Qaida, was delivered to the Iraqi border by Syrian authorities yesterday, U.S. officials said.
Farouk Hijazi was taken into custody near the Syrian border, U.S. officials said, indicating new cooperation from a government that had been accused of harboring members of Saddam Hussein's deposed regime.
Hijazi most recently served as Iraq's ambassador to Tunisia, and was formerly ambassador to Turkey. But he is of particular interest to the CIA and the Pentagon because he was "a lifelong member of the Iraqi Intelligence Service," known as Mukhabarat, a U.S. official said.
"He is significant," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said. "We think he could be interesting."
Hijazi is believed to have extensive knowledge of Iraqi operations and plots dating back decades. He occupied the No. 3 position in Hussein's spy apparatus in the early 1990s when Iraqis tried to assassinate Bush in Kuwait.
Former CIA Director James Woolsey said that Hijazi's capture was "the biggest catch so far" for U.S. forces and that Hijazi is a key link between Hussein and terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida. "This man was involved, we know, with a number of contacts with al-Qaida," Woolsey told CNN.
But current U.S. officials were more measured in their appraisals and expressed some skepticism in particular about persistent reports that Hijazi had once met with al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Unconfirmed media reports have indicated that Hijazi served as Hussein's liaison to anti-Western terrorist organizations, and that he met with bin Laden between 1996 and 1998.
"We've seen the reports," an official said. "We don't know how true they are."
He said U.S. intelligence analysts are divided over whether Hijazi would have met bin Laden, given that the radical Islamic terror chieftain had publicly denounced Hussein's secular regime.
Officials said it is more likely that Hijazi would be able to provide information on the attempted assassination of Bush in 1993.
"We think that's highly probable, given the job that he had at the time," the U.S. official said. "We believe he was either witting or responsible," and in all likelihood personally involved.
At the time of the assassination attempt, Hijazi was responsible for overseeing covert operations overseas for Hussein.
The FBI's Washington field office, which handles all investigations of assassination plots involving the chief executive, led the investigation of the Iraqi plot. An FBI official said that he knew of no existing arrest warrant for Hijazi.
Bush had traveled to Kuwait after losing the 1992 presidential election to Bill Clinton. He was to be honored by the Kuwaiti government for leading Operation Desert Storm, which expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991.
A U.S. official said Iraqi operatives had planned to rig a vehicle with explosives and try to detonate it at an event attended by Bush, or alongside his motorcade.
After the plot was thwarted, Clinton ordered a U.S. reprisal that included airstrikes on regime targets in Baghdad.
An administration official said Hijazi is believed to have had connections with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the large Arab organization that was folded into al-Qaida.
Details on Hijazi's capture were sketchy yesterday, but U.S. officials said he was delivered to the Iraqi border by the Syrian government.
The administration official said the Syrians had held Hijazi for a week and questioned him extensively before turning him over.
"They put him out on the Iraq side of the border," the administration official said. "The Syrians put him into our hands. We knew when he was going to cross. We knew he was going to be there."
The official indicated that no direct communication occurred between the United States and Syria on the matter but that there were indirect signals, perhaps conveyed through a third party friendly to both sides, such as Jordan.
A Pentagon official confirmed the Syrian cooperation, saying that the expulsion of Hijazi is "certainly an indication that the Syrians are following through on what they said they were going to do."
Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.