WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials are exploring an Iraqi offer to provide documents linking unnamed Middle East terrorists to the bombing of the World Trade Center and to a larger plot to blow up New York City landmarks.
The U.S. officials held two secret meetings with Iraqi officials here on May 16 and May 20 to seek details of the Iraqi offer, a senior State Department official disclosed yesterday. The meetings included Justice Department and FBI officials, the State Department official said.
A sticking point in the U.S.-Iraq discussions has been Iraq's insistence that it will turn over the documents only if a U.S. intelligence official travels to Baghdad to receive them.
While Justice Department and FBI officials want to pursue the unusual offer, the State Department is taking a go-slow approach.
U.S. diplomats say they are wary that Iraq's requirement that an American intelligence official come to Baghdad might help Iraq's President Saddam Hussein gain new respect for his outlaw state.
As a result of its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Iraq has been isolated politically and is the continuing target of U.N. economic sanctions.
"They want to get us into a broader direct dialogue that would look to the world like a softening of our stance and like Iraq was once again becoming an acceptable member of the world community," said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition that he would not be identified.
However, he added, law enforcement officials here would like to see whatever Iraq has in its possession and are continuing to press Baghdad to provide the information.
A Justice Department spokesman, John Russell, said the Iraqi offer was "worth pursuing." But he cautioned that "we are still in the preliminary stage. We are still dancing with them. We don't know what we have. Negotiations are continuing."
The documents, if they are genuine, could help determine whether a foreign government sponsored the February 1993 bombing, which was the worst terrorist incident in U.S. history. The attack killed six people and injured more than 1,000 in New York's Wall Street.
Two weeks ago, U.S. officials signaled their interest in the issue by asking Iraq for more information.
"We again asked for clarification of the nature and form of the alleged information they have," said the State Department official. He said that Iraq hadn't replied to that request thus far.