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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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With the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his associates bogging down in regional and tribal politics, American officials say they are facing the unsettling prospect that Al Qaeda members are slipping away into Iran.

Senior Afghan intelligence and security officials believe that about 1,000 Al Qaeda members are on the run and still fighting in Afghanistan, but they say hundreds more, including senior leaders, are crossing the borders into Iran and Pakistan.

These officials say that if the United States wants to successfully complete its war on terror inside Afghanistan, it needs to adjust what they call a failed bombing strategy and put more ground forces into the hunt for fleeing Al Qaeda and Taliban officials.

Senior American officials say Iran, which shares a 600-mile border with Afghanistan, may be abetting the escape of Al Qaeda and Taliban members and also frustrating the US war on terror. There are also reports that Iran is aiding militants, including the Pashtun fundamentalist leader Gulbud din Hekmatyar, who are not at all supportive of Afghanistan's interim administration.

"We are concerned that some Al Qaeda people have skipped westward, and the interim authority [in Kabul] is concerned about those people because they played a great role in the destruction of Afghanistan," says a senior US diplomat. "I think Iran needs to consider the consequences of going that route."

From forces near Herat receiving support from Iran in the east, to tribal chieftains on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border in the west and south, some of whom side with Al Qaeda, the US faces a complex web of regional players who could foil the search for the world's most wanted man and his associates.

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