Bin Laden made US a top target

By Xinhua

Beijing : Osama bin Laden ordered a top lieutenant in early 2005 to form a terrorist cell to plot attacks outside of Iraq and make the US the top target, a senior US official said.

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Citing newly declassified intelligence, Frances Fragos Townsend, the White House homeland security adviser, Tuesday said the intelligence backed the Bush administration's assertion that Al Qaida wants to use Iraq as a staging area for attacks around the world, including the US, so the American troops must stay in Iraq to prevent it from becoming a "terrorist sanctuary".

Townsend spoke to reporters on the eve of a Bush speech at the US Coast Guard Academy to update the war on terrorism, and as congressional Democrats backed off on demands that Iraq war funding be tied to a troop pullout timetable.

Reading from notes, she said the declassified intelligence showed that in January 2005, bin Laden tasked al-Zarqawi with organizing the cell. Al-Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaida's Iraq operations, was killed in June 2006 by a US airstrike.

"The intelligence community tells us that the cell is to conduct attacks outside Iraq and that frankly America should be his number one priority," she said.

"We know from the intelligence community that Zarqawi welcomed the tasking, claimed he already had some good proposals," she added.

Townsend said that in the spring of 2005 bin Laden also told Hamza Rabia, the then Al Qaeda's top operations man, to brief Zarqawi on the group's "external operations planning, including homeland plots (targeting the US)."

She said she could go public with the information now because Zarqawi and Rabia are dead and several other key Al Qaeda operatives are in US custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The White House has intermittently declassified and made public sensitive intelligence information to help rebut critics or defend programs or actions against possibly adverse decisions in the Congress or the courts.

On a few occasions, the declassified materials were intended as proof that terrorists see Iraq as a critical staging ground for global operations.

Critics have accused Bush of selectively declassifying intelligence, including portions of a sensitive National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, to justify the 2003 US-led invasion on the ground that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. That assertion proved false.

The Bush administration has abandoned earlier charges that Al Qaeda had ties to the government of Saddam Hussein before he was toppled in the invasion.