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Alleged CIA target tied to Iraq group

Italian official details imam case

MILAN -- The radical Islamic preacher who Italian prosecutors say was abducted by CIA agents in February 2003 had been involved in preparing false passports and travel documents for radical Islamic fighters traveling to northern Iraq, according to an Italian law enforcement official involved in the case.

The official said Italian investigators believe that the preacher, identified by prosecutors as Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, was involved with Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish Islamic group in northern Iraq that the United States said had ties with Saddam Hussein's regime, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda.

The alleged Iraq link offers a possible explanation for why the CIA would covertly abduct a terrorism suspect in Italy, a US ally that had been cooperating closely on terrorism operations and on Nasr's case.

According to court documents, 13 CIA operatives snatched Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, off the streets of Milan on Feb. 17, 2003, a month before the United States invaded Iraq.

The alleged abduction, without the consent of Italian agents, has outraged Italian law enforcement officials, who had been monitoring Nasr as part of their own counterterrorism operation. Italian prosecutors are seeking the arrest of the operatives in a case that could damage US-Italian relations.

A court document filed in Milan and obtained by the Globe names the 13 suspected CIA operatives, and lists dates and places of birth, credit card numbers, and American addresses. It is not clear whether the identities are real. The document also lists the names of six other Americans who had been in Italy and are accused of assisting in the operation but have not been charged. Separately, the document alleges that Lieutenant Colonel Joseph L. Romano III, then a US commander at the Aviano Air Base in Italy, allowed the base to be used for Nasr's transfer. Romano also has not been charged.

Italian officials say the Egyptian-born Nasr had been suspected of terrorist activity since he received political asylum in Italy in 2001.

''He was involved in an organization that sent people to training camps in Kurdistan," said the Italian law enforcement official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. ''He was involved in preparing false documents and passports for sending people in Iraq, [perhaps] to train for bomb attacks."

The official said Italian investigators have seen no evidence to indicate that Nasr was involved with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq who has claimed responsibility for some of the deadliest terrorist acts there. Reporters, human rights groups, and State Department officials once associated Zarqawi with Ansar al-Islam.

Since 2001, Italy's special counterterrorism police, DIGOS, had bugged Nasr's home and mosque and had been listening in on his conversations with suspected militants in an attempt to understand his network.

Their investigation ended when he abruptly disappeared in 2003. Italian police, who had suspected CIA involvement in Nasr's disappearance, only discovered what had really happened to him a year later, when he called his wife in Milan from Cairo to say that he had been kidnapped, sent to Egypt, and tortured so badly there during questioning that he had become deaf in one ear, according to a statement released by prosecutors Friday and to the law enforcement official.

''The logical question is, why didn't the CIA coordinate with the Italians and let them know what was going on?" said Andrew Krepinevich, executive director at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based defense think-tank. Krepinevich said the bulk of the CIA's efforts in the run-up to the Iraq war focused on pinpointing the location of Saddam Hussein and the location of weapons of mass destruction, and not capturing mullahs who had been providing false travel documents to jihad fighters.

''It seems like awfully small potatoes to go after this guy at the risk of alienating what has turned out to be one of our closest allies in the Iraq war," he said.

From their previous surveillance of Nasr, Italian investigators had been reaping a wealth of information about recruitment of jihadi fighters across Europe.

According to excerpts from the transcript published last year in The Observer newspaper in London, Nasr and a visitor were overheard discussing the need for ''intelligent and highly educated people" for a jihad operation.

The two talked in great detail about support for jihad in Saudi Arabia, Poland, Bulgaria, Austria, and Britain, and referred to London as ''the nerve center" of their network, according to the newspaper. ''The thread begins in Saudi Arabia," the visitor is quoted as saying during that meeting in Nasr's Via Quaranta mosque on June 15, 2002. ''Don't ever worry about money, because Saudi Arabia's money is your money."

The visitor also told Nasr that Eastern Europe is a good place for operations because ''there aren't too many eyes," according to the transcript quoted in the Observer.

The visitor also praised a man named Sheik Abd al-Aziz in Poland, saying, ''His organization is stunning."

The Italian law enforcement official did not detail what evidence links Nasr to Ansar al-Islam, a group of Muslim fundamentalists that came together in northern Iraq in September 2001. According to Human Rights Watch, the group imposed a Taliban-style ban on music and Western dress in the areas that had come under its control.

The State Department classifies the group as a terrorist organization. During the Iraq war, US airstrikes destroyed its base and its fighters fled to Iran to regroup, the State Department said.

But yesterday, in Milan's Islamic Cultural Center, housed in a modest building in the city's bustling immigrant district, Nasr's former associates denied that his fiery speeches against the United States represented anything other than his political beliefs.

''He was a kind, normal person and in no way dangerous," said Imam Abu Imad, the center's spiritual leader. ''Maybe he spoke about Muslims having to resist injustice, but this was his opinion."

Imad said that he first met Nasr in Milan in 1993 and that Nasr had been engaged in charity work among the Muslim communities in Albania.

He said Nasr was born in Egypt, where he studied law, and moved to live in a run-down apartment building in Milan's Via Conte Verde in 2001, after being granted political asylum.

Nasr has two children -- a son and daughter -- and a wife, Nabila, who have since left Milan for Egypt, Imad said.

Nasr's wife had contacted a lawyer associated with the mosque to help find her husband.

''A few years ago a woman came to me and said her husband was missing," said Antonio Nebuloni, lawyer to the Milan Islamic Cultural Center. ''And then we found that he disappeared."

Celeste reported from Milan, and Stockman from Boston.

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