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 told the New York Times.
The agency's previously undisclosed assessment has circulated among senior Bush administration officials. It describes both 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 may 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 mid level operatives said to have been spotted in Iraq and an analysis of the organization's prior tactics, according to administration officials.
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 right now as the United States and Britain gather their forces for a possible attack on Iraq.
It suggests that terrorist fighters may blend in with the Iraqi civilian population to get close enough to conduct strikes against allied troops during an invasion, officials said. Or they may 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, one 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 of his weapons of mass destruction. But this assessment appears to have been prepared in order 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 inextricably 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 even supported the al-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 Powell in his speech on Feb. 5 at the United Nations.
The CIA document identifies four followers in Baghdad, described by one official as second- or third-tier leaders.
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 al-Zarqawi, could assume a larger role, intelligence and law enforcement officials said.
In his presentation to the United Nations last month, Powell said al-Zarqawi began recruiting terrorists shortly after he arrived in Baghdad last May. Powell said that nearly two dozen militants joined al-Zarqawi and established a base of operations there, and that 116 suspected terrorists linked to al-Zarqawi had been arrested in Europe in recent weeks.
Officials in Germany, who investigated al-Zarqawi for more than a year, have agreed he is a terrorist, but dispute that he has a connection to al-Qaida.
The threat assessment also cites intelligence reports indicating that in northern Iraq, including Kurdish areas only nominally under Hussein's control, 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.
Intelligence officials said that some of the al-Qaida followers in northern Iraq had fled there from the war in Afghanistan, and were not thought to be under the control of al-Zarqawi. Instead, they have established themselves as a loosely organized but separate force, further complicating efforts to predict their actions.
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.