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Iraq a site to train terrorists, CIA says

WASHINGTON -- The CIA believes the Iraq insurgency poses an international threat and may produce better-trained Islamic terrorists than the 1980s Afghanistan war that gave rise to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, officials said yesterday.

A classified report from the agency says Iraqi and foreign fighters are developing a broad range of skills, from car bombings and assassinations to coordinated conventional attacks on police and military targets, officials said.

Once the insurgency ends, Islamic militants are likely to disperse as highly organized battle-hardened combatants capable of operating throughout the Arab-speaking world and in other regions including Europe.

The May report, which has been widely circulated in the intelligence community, also cites a potential threat to the United States.

''You have people coming to the action with anti-US sentiment. . . . And since they're Iraqi or foreign Arabs or to some degree Kurds, they have more communities they can blend into outside Iraq," said a US counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, a Pentagon official said the Central Intelligence Agency report appeared to be a synthesis of intelligence information already known to military commanders in the Gulf region.

Iraq has become a magnet for Islamic militants similar to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan two decades ago and Bosnia in the 1990s, US officials say.

Bin Laden won prominence as a US ally in the war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. He later used Afghanistan as the training center for his Al Qaeda network.

President Bush justified the invasion of Iraq in part by charging that Saddam Hussein was supporting Al Qaeda. A US inquiry later found no such collaboration.

Since the invasion, Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has emerged as a key insurgent figure and pledged his allegiance to bin Laden.

Although the Afghan war against the Soviets was largely fought on a rural battlefield, the CIA report said, Iraq is providing extremists with more comprehensive skills including training in operations devised for populated urban areas.

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