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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- He's the closest thing to a smoking gun in Washington's intelligence arsenal, a man who could finally and definitively link Saddam Hussein with the world's most notorious terrorist and push reluctant allies to support a U.S.-led war against Iraq.
Abu Musab Zarqawi has been linked to the murder of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan and poison plots in a half-dozen European countries. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the U.N. Security Council that Osama bin Laden's man in Iraq sits atop a "sinister nexus" of terror and that Hussein has been harboring his nefarious group.
"We are not surprised that Iraq is harboring Zarqawi and his subordinates," Powell said. "Ambition and hatred are enough to bring Iraq and al-Qaida together."
Powell made the point to the world body that the al-Qaida operative -- known for his expertise at concocting poison and his fanatic zeal for terrorism -- was a threat to Europe, as well as America and the rest of the world. Some 116 operatives of the cell have been arrested around the world, Powell said.
"Zarqawi and his network have plotted terrorist actions against countries including France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia," he said.
Powell and other U.S. officials say Zarqawi has set up a camp in a corner of northern Iraq controlled by a tiny Kurdish extremist group, Ansar al-Islam. The region is outside Hussein's control, but Powell said the Iraqi president has an agent in the top leadership of Ansar al-Islam, and implied the group would not have offered al-Qaida refuge without Hussein's consent.
In May 2002, Zarqawi received medical treatment in Baghdad after he fled Afghanistan, Powell said. He said that while Zarqawi was in the Iraqi capital, nearly two dozen other extremists converged there to establish a base of operations.
"These al-Qaida affiliates, based in Baghdad, now coordinate the movement of people, money and supplies into and throughout Iraq for his network, and they've now been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months," Powell said. "From his terrorist network in Iraq, Zarqawi can direct his network in the Middle East and beyond."
Powell also said Iraq's embassy in Pakistan served as a liaison between al-Qaida and the Iraqi leadership from the late 1990s until 2001, but he did not go into detail. Bin Laden was a guest at the time of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan, and Pakistan was one of just three countries to recognize the Taliban.
The secretary of state's comments were quickly rejected -- both by the Iraqi regime and the leadership of Ansar al-Islam.
"Neither I nor anybody in our group has ever seen or met al-Zarqawi, and he has never visited our area," Ansar al-Islam leader Mullah Krekar said at a news conference in Oslo, Norway. Krekar also denied that Hussein held any influence with the group, saying the Iraqi leader is a bad Muslim and "an enemy of me and my people."
And in Baghdad, an Iraqi presidential adviser, Lt. Gen. Amir al-Saadi, said: "We have no relationship with al-Qaida."
Zarqawi, a Palestinian born in Jordan, has been on the world's intelligence radar since 1999, when he allegedly helped orchestrate a failed plot to attack American and Israeli tourists in Jordan using gas. He also is being investigated in Germany for allegedly ordering attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets.
In December, Jordanian authorities identified Zarqawi as having orchestrated the slaying of Laurence Foley, a 60-year-old administrator of U.S. aid programs in Jordan. Foley was killed Oct. 28 outside his home in Amman.
Zarqawi is said to have gained his talent for manufacturing poison -- including the ultra-lethal ricin -- at camps in Afghanistan run by bin Laden.