Two defectors from Iraqi intelligence said yesterday that they had worked for several years at a secret Iraqi government camp that had trained Islamic terrorists since 1995.
They said the training was aimed at carrying out attacks against neighboring countries and possibly Europe and the United States.
The defectors, one of whom was a lieutenant general and was one of the most senior officers in the Iraqi intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, said they did not know if the Islamic militants being trained at Salman Pak were linked to Osama bin Laden.
They also said they had no knowledge of specific attacks carried out by the militants. But they insisted that those being trained as recently as last year were Islamic radicals from across the Middle East.
The defectors said they knew of a highly guarded compound within the camp where Iraqi scientists, led by a German, produced biological agents.
"There is a lot we do not know," the former general said. "We were forbidden to speak about our activities among each other, even off duty. But over the years, you see and hear things. ... It was clear they came from a variety of countries, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Egypt and Morocco. We were training these people to attack installations important to the United States. The [Persian Gulf war] never ended for Saddam Hussein. He is at war with the United States. We were repeatedly told this."
United Nations arms inspectors suspected that such activities, including simulated hijackings carried out in a Boeing 707 fuselage, were going on at Salman Pak before they were expelled from Iraq in 1998. But this is the first look at the workings of the camp from those who took part in its administration.
Richard Sperzel, former chief of U.N. biological weapons inspection teams in Iraq, said the Iraqis had always told the inspectors the site was an anti-terror training camp for Iraqi special forces.
The assertions of terrorism training are likely to fuel one side of an intense debate in Washington over whether to extend the war against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban government of Afghanistan to include Iraq.
American officials confirmed that they had met with the former lieutenant general in Turkey but said they had not learned much. They said it was unlikely that the training in the fuselage was linked to the Sept. 11 U.S. hijackings.
The camp is overseen by the highest levels of Iraqi intelligence, and those who worked there were compartmentalized into distinct sections. On one side of the camp, these men said, young Iraqis who were members of Fedayeen Saddam, or Saddam's Fighters, were trained in espionage, assassination techniques and sabotage.
On the other side of the camp, the militants spent a great deal of time training, usually in groups of five or six, around the fuselage of the 707. There were rarely more than 40 or 50 Islamic radicals in the camp at one time for five- or six-month stays.
Although the Islamic militants were carefully segregated from the Iraqi units, haphazard contact occurred, the former general said.
The report comes on the heels of an announcement by Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross, who said Mohammed Atta, the suspected leader of the hijackers, had met with Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, an Iraqi diplomat identified by the Czech authorities as an intelligence officer, in April.
There are unexplained gaps and absences, some as long as 15 months, during Atta's stay in Germany, suggesting that he might have been training abroad.