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Al Qaeda quietly slipping into Iran, Pakistan

A web of regional players could foil the search for bin Laden and his associates.

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The route to Iran is a well-worn human smuggling track that has been traveled by some 2 million Afghan refugees in the past 20 years.

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After President Bush himself warned against harboring members of Al Qaeda, Iran's foreign ministry flatly denied it had any role in ferrying the fugitives to safety. Afghan officials in Kabul said they did not believe Iran was helping Al Qaeda in any way. But an Iranian official in the region said that for the right price, almost anyone - including senior Al Qaeda or Taliban members - could enter his country with the help of human traffickers.

The official, sitting alongside a photograph of the late Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, denied that the Iranian government had any hand in the smuggling rackets. He stressed that Tehran was committed to upholding international peacemaking efforts in Afghanistan.

Follow the money

"All the people in these smuggling rackets are working only for money, and many of them are armed with weapons far more sophisticated than those being held by our own border guards," he says. American officials say that aid to the escapees could also be coming from hard-line political forces in Iran that stand opposed to Iranian President Mohamad Khatami, who often speaks fondly of Western cooperation.

As was the case for the two countries in the wake of NATO's intervention in Bosnia on the side of the Muslim-led government there, Iran and the United States now find themselves to be awkward partners in the peace process for Afghanistan. American officials, who now appear to be accusing Iran of assisting their enemy, had earlier spoken of a convergence of political interests and expressed great hopes of working directly with Tehran to combat terror.

Some Western military analysts have praised Washington for avoiding a massive ground invasion of Afghanistan that might have upset Iran and its neighboring Arab states.

But Afghan officials, who receive significant financial support from both Washington and Tehran, are now suggesting that a much heavier US ground contingent is now needed.

"The main problem in the last three months of war has been that, while the US has destroyed Al Qaeda's terror network, it has not eradicated its members," says Gen. Juraat Khan Panjshiri, Afghanistan's national security chief. "If the Americans don't want to repeat the mistakes of Tora Bora, they will have to send in more ground troops to complement their aerial strategy. We'd also be able to help them better on the ground if this was done."

American officials insist that Afghan officials have not been critical of their air war against Al Qaeda. "The danger is that if we stop the bombing, declare victory, and go home, these pockets [of Al Qaeda] could regroup and challenge the authority," says a senior US official.

"If, for example, we stop the bombing prematurely, and in a few weeks, Kandahar falls again to the Taliban, then what?"

Where are they now?

Afghan intelligence officials believe the following Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders are hiding in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

AL QAEDA

Somewhere in Pakistan: Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda chief, last seen in Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, has fled to Pakistan, Al Qaeda officials say.

In Quetta, Pakistan: Saeb ar-Rudd, trainer in Al Qaeda camps in Ghazni, central Afghanistan; Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden's No. 2, who recently published encouraging words to fellow Al Qaeda members on how to evade Western captors.

TALIBAN

In Helmand Province, Afghanistan: Mullah Mohammad Omar, cleric who led the Taliban, was last spotted by Afghan officials heading out of the area on a motorcycle.

In Quetta: Amir Khan Montaqi, minister of education; Mullah Turabi, minister of justice, who created the Ministry of Virtue and Prevention of Vice; Mullah Jalil, first foreign minister.

In Reigu Seema, in border area between Helmand Province and Pakistan: Mullah Abed Berader, senior military commander; Hassan Rahmani, governor of Kandahar Province, senior official, and decision-maker in Omar's shura; Obeid Ullah, minister of defense.

In Chaman, Pakistan, close to Afghan border: Mullah Abdel Razak, minister of interior; Mullah Mohammed Abbas, deputy health minister.

In Peshawar, Pakistan: Mullah Abdel Rahman iz-Zahid, deputy foreign minister and top negotiator for Omar.

In Gardi Jangal, Pakistan, near border with Kandahar Province: Mullah Abdul Bari, deputy governor of Kandahar.

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