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U.S. observes al-Qaida contact with Hezbollah

U.S. intelligence agencies have detected low-level al-Qaida members building relationships with members of Hezbollah, sparking worries that the world's most sophisticated Islamic terror networks will start cooperating, the Associated Press reported, citing U.S. counterterrorism officials it did not name.

The contacts so far are not extensive, and officials say Iranian-backed Hezbollah has plenty of reasons, both ideological and practical, to spurn any formal advances from al-Qaida's leadership.

Instead, counterterrorism officials say individual al-Qaida members, cut off from group leadership, are turning to what they consider the next best thing _ Hezbollah.

Still, the prospect of cooperation at any level has alarmed U.S. officials.

The fervor and international sophistication of al-Qaida members, coupled with the resources, organization and state backing of Hezbollah, would constitute a volatile mix, terrorism experts said.

But that conclusion isn't universally accepted by the U.S. government.

Hezbollah enjoys support from Syria and Lebanon, both of which have aided the U.S. war on al-Qaida, and U.S. officials believe Hezbollah's relationship with both countries could be threatened if it worked extensively with bin Laden's group.

"Hezbollah leaders understand that al-Qaida is too hot to touch right now," said Janice Paine, a terrorism expert at Harvard University. "It's very easy for Hezbollah leaders to imagine the bombs that are falling on al-Qaida could be falling on them if they get connected to any terrorism in the United States."

Historically, al-Qaida and Hezbollah functioned separately. Al-Qaida is run by Sunni Muslims and Hezbollah by Shiites.

Theological differences between these two chief branches of Islam apparently have prevented an alliance thus far, but their mutual hatred of America and Israel may drive them closer, officials fear.