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Al-Qaida operatives elude grasp of elite Iranian paramilitary force | (KRT) KOOLEH SANGI, Iran - The search for al-Qaida has come to this checkpoint a five-minute drive from Iran's border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, where an elite paramilitary force harasses travelers and patrols the narrow pass between towering cliffs.

The unit has been stationed on this sole thoroughfare along the southeastern edge of the Islamic republic since early spring in a rare, tangible sign of Iranian leaders' claims that they're committed to rooting out terrorists, even if the effectiveness of their efforts is open to doubt.

Tensions between the Bush administration and Iran have escalated since U.S. intelligence officials charged that senior al-Qaida operatives hiding in Iran helped orchestrate suicide bombings May 12 in Saudi Arabia. Thirty-five people, including nine Americans, were killed. While Iran's government hasn't refuted those claims, it says it's doing all it can to root out al-Qaida agents and other terrorists.

Named after one of the prophet Muhammad's followers, the paramilitary unit "Meghdad" hails from Kerman, 330 miles west of here, and shares neither cultural nor religious ties with the people it cracks down on. Its members are tough and command fear from the Sistan-Baluchistan province's largely tribal Sunni Muslims, a minority religious sect in overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim Iran.

"If you have an Arab name, they stop you, put your car up on jacks to search underneath, as they did mine," complained Abdul Bassid, who was approaching the checkpoint on his way to the provincial capital of Zahedan on a recent afternoon. "They even look under women's chadors," the black head-to-toe covering that many Iranian women wear.

Yet al-Qaida operatives, like the many heroin traffickers who smuggle millions of dollars' worth of the narcotic into Iran each year, appear to have eluded Meghdad's grasp, Bassid and other local Baluchis say.

That's not surprising. Avoiding the Meghdad is as simple as getting off the road before the checkpoint, hiking into the mountains with a smuggler, then returning to the road farther down. Border crossings are similarly meaningless. For as little as $100, illicit guides will take any undocumented traveler into and out of Iran from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"The disciplinary forces don't have enough people to patrol all of the footpaths and borders around here," Bassid said. Nor can authorities pinpoint all the homeowners who are willing to rent rooms to undocumented travelers.

Western intelligence officials think that Saif al Adel, an Egyptian member of al-Qaida who took over military operations for the group earlier this year, and Saad bin Laden, a son of Osama bin Laden, the group's leader, hid for months in this porous province. Local Baluchis said recently that they hadn't heard about either man being in Sistan-Baluchistan, however.

Nevertheless, the Baluchis say al-Qaida operatives could hide here for months, financed by Taliban remnants who are said to operate the smuggled-textiles market in Zahedan's bazaar and aided by sympathetic Baluchis who remain angry at the United States over the war in Afghanistan.

If al-Qaida is in Iran, it's because of the ease with which smugglers aided by local sympathizers move throughout this region, say Iranian leaders in the capital, Tehran. Iran sought to buy sophisticated radar equipment from France several years ago to help clamp down on their movement, but the request was refused, said one Iranian official, who asked not to be identified.

As willing as they are to complain about what they can't do against al-Qaida, Iranian officials refuse to spell out what they are doing. Deployments such as that of the Meghdad unit are kept secret and requests for interviews with Iranians involved in the fight against al-Qaida are refused.

"We are afraid of al-Qaida, and we are not willing to tell them (through the media) how we are conducting our operation," said Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, a spokesman for Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami. "We are fighting against terrorists who were militarily trained by the Americans, terrorists who fight with faith and who have been educated in the West. All of these make al-Qaida a very complicated group to fight."

Recently, an Iranian paramilitary trooper who helped raid one suspected al-Qaida operative's hideout lost both hands in the operation, said someone familiar with the incident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Some Western intelligence officials and analysts suspect Iranian hard-liners of having a hand in harboring Adel and the younger bin Laden, among others.

"You can look at Iran's track record," said one Western diplomat in Tehran, who also asked not to be named. Iran's Revolutionary Guard is linked to the militant Islamic group Hezbollah in Lebanon, helps the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and was implicated in the Karina-A arms-smuggling incident off the coast of Israel, the diplomat said.

"Iran's duplicity and completely contradictory policy make it perfectly feasible that they are (helping) al-Qaida, but we couldn't stand up and accuse them of that right now as there's no hard evidence."

Ramezanzadeh, like many members of the president's Cabinet, vehemently denied that anyone within Iran's leadership is helping al-Qaida. The Revolutionary Guard answers directly to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, who has signed off on Iran's intensive, if not public, effort against al-Qaida, Ramezanzadeh said.

"Neither ideologically nor politically is there any reason for us to work with al-Qaida," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi. "Al-Qaida has a free hand all over the world and for that America is to blame, as there is no security in Afghanistan even today."

Danial Mollaee, Sistan-Baluchistan's deputy governor for political and security affairs, also blamed Pakistan for smugglers' and terrorists' ability to infiltrate Iran. Pakistani authorities are very lax in their control of the 562-mile border between the two countries, he said. "They create insecurity for us."

A tour of the Mirjaveh border crossing 52 miles south of Zahedan lent credence to Mollaee's claims. Barbed wire and fencing were up only along the Iranian side of the border. Only on the Iranian side could soldiers be seen at makeshift checkpoints inspecting hundreds of Toyota pickups packed with food, clothes and other goods that arrive from Pakistan each day.

"The people here used to be farmers but because of a five-year-long drought, most of them now are smugglers," one provincial officer in Mirjaveh said. "It's impossible for us to catch all of them."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services