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U.S. casts a wary eye toward Iraq

By David Ensor
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The news that U.S. officials had information that suspected hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence official at a location in Europe earlier this year immediately raised the possibility that Iraq played a role in the massive terrorist attack on American soil.

Yet U.S. officials and a terrorism expert told CNN that they do not think Iraq is involved in the attacks, which left more than 5,500 people either dead or missing in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Investigators believe is the work of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist organization.

Still, there are some connections. In addition to the meeting between Atta and the Iraqi intelligence officer, sources said Wednesday there is limited evidence of a 1998 meeting between bin Laden and Iraq's ambassador to Turkey, whom U.S. intelligence officers consider a senior Iraqi intelligence official.

And there are other connections between Iraq and bin Laden, a fugitive Saudi multimillionaire believed to be in hiding in Afghanistan. A passport found on one of the bombers of the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 -- an act blamed on bin Laden's group -- believed to have disappeared from Kuwait during the 1990 Iraqi invasion of that country. And both sides share a mutual hostility toward the United States.

Yet officials said they believe al Qaeda had enough money, experienced, trained men willing to give die in the attacks, and expertise gained through past terrorist acts, so that it may not have needed much help from Iraq to launch the series of attacks on the United States.

In addition, the Iraqi intelligence official believed to have met with Atta earlier this year was using official cover. He had diplomatic status in the country where he was operating, so therefore he would have assumed that he might be being watched and his conversations monitored.

Officials said it is unlikely that an intelligence officer would have been that sloppy.

Still, U.S. officials, though they might be skeptical, are not ruling out the possibility of an Iraqi role. In recent days, they have noted that the U.S. will not only be going after the terrorists responsible for the attacks, but also after any countries that support them.

On Wednesday, Attorney General John Ashcroft said on Wednesday that officials believe state support is a component of an attack as large and well-coordinated as the one that hit the United Sates on September 11.

"It's pretty clear that the networks that conduct these kinds of events are harbored and supported, sustained, protected by a variety of foreign governments," Ashcroft said. "And it's time for those governments to understand with crystal clarity that the United States of America will not tolerate that kind of support for networks that would inflict that kind of damage on the American people."

Ashcroft declined to say whether Iraq is believed to have played a role in the attacks.

Alliance doubtful between Iraq, al Qaeda

Iraq has for years been on the State Department's list of states that are sponsors of international terrorism, a list that included six other governments as well this year. One anti-Western terrorism incident in which U.S. officials say Iraq played a direct role was a foiled plot to assassinate former President Bush -- the current president's father -- during a visit to Kuwait in 1993.

"Saddam Hussein was put on notice that he can't do those type of things," said Peter Bergen, CNN terrorism analyst.

Yet intelligence experts doubt the viability of an alliance between Iraq and al Qaeda, in part because they have two very different philosophies. Bin Laden, a fundamentalist Muslim, has been critical in the past of Iraq's more secular regime.

And experts on Iraq also doubt that Saddam Hussein would dare to risk invoking the full wrath of the United States, including his own likely death, by taking an active role in the attacks on New York and Washington.

"One meeting does not make a conspiracy," Bergen said. "Saddam Hussein does not engage in these types of acts."

Charles Duelfer, a former deputy executive chairman of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq, said Hussein avoided deploying biological and chemical weapons during the Gulf War because he feared the backlash from the United States and its allies would be so severe that he himself would be killed.

"Given that kind of background, I would be a little bit surprised if it was Saddam Hussein who directed this," Duelfer, now a visiting scholar with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said in an interview. "But, on the other hand, I would also be somewhat surprised if there were no connection at all between Saddam and al Qaeda."

-- CNN's Manuel Perez-Rivas and B. Duane Cross contributed to this report.

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