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Iran holds Al Qaeda suspects: now what?

Heavily bearded and gesticulating wildly, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith made a memorable videotaped appearance in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The Kuwaiti-born Al Qaeda spokesman vowed in the fall of 2001 that the "storm of airplanes" would continue to strike American targets.

Now, Kuwait has confirmed that Mr. Abu Ghaith is in Iranian custody. Not only that, but an emirate official told a Saudi newspaper that Iran was offering to hand one of the US's most wanted Al Qaeda suspects over to Kuwait.

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Iran says that it is holding a "large number of small- and big-time" members of the group although it has yet to identify any. Iran's interior minister, Abdolvahed Mussavi Lari, said some of the Al Qaeda detainees would be extradited to their home countries and others would be put on trial. The rest would be deported to the countries from which they entered Iran, he told Iran's official news agency.

By handing over some of Osama bin Laden's closest associates, Iran is in a position to deal a major blow to his network. And Iran is keen to co-operate, both to help ease tensions with Washington and because the Islamic republic regards Al Qaeda as a bitter enemy, analysts say.

But progress is being complicated on several fronts. The Bush administration's criticism of Iran's nuclear facilities and of support of Palestinian militant groups means any direct handover of suspects to the US is unlikely.

How far Iran should "appear to be cooperating in an American-led effort" is also the focus of a struggle between Iran's rival hard-line and reformist wings, says a Western diplomat reached by phone in Tehran. "Iran has been foot dragging, but it was a useful sign last week - the admission they did have some big names and that they were willing to look at extradition," the envoy says.

Another complication: Some of the US's Arab allies are in no rush to take back leading Al Qaeda figures. Kuwait refused to take Abu Ghaith off Iran's hands, explaining it had stripped him of his citizenship after Sept. 11.

Iran would "really like to cooperate" but is in a "peculiar situation right now," says Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University in New York. The Iranians "don't want to hand them over to the US because they don't want to be seen co-operating directly with the Americans, and they can't get other people to take them off their hands, so they're sort of stuck with them."

The level of hostility to Iran is "really extraordinary in this administration," says Mr. Sick, who has served at the National Security Council under three US presidents. "There are people in very high levels who really want nothing more than to have Iran as the next target of US military action."

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Iran has said it is in talks with unnamed "friendly countries" about extraditing some of the Al Qaeda members. Various media reports say those countries are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Egypt. B

ut these countries could face domestic political problems if they imprison or pass on to the US any senior Al Qaeda leaders, analysts say. Kuwait, for example, isn't eager to put Abu Ghaith on trial, says Sick. "That would cause a problem with some of their Islamists because he was a very popular and fiery preacher in Kuwait before he went off to join Al Qaeda and he still has a following in Kuwait."

Ali Ansari, a lecturer in Middle East history at Durham University in the Britain, says Tehran would like to quietly help Washington on the Al Qaeda question. "The sympathy in this war on terrorism of most Iranians is with the Americans because, frankly, Iran is a Shiite country and has as much to fear from this Sunni radicalism as any other country," he says. "You have to remember in 1998, the Iranians were on the verge of going to war against Afghanistan and the Taliban."

Yet Washington has persistently accused Iranian hardliners of sheltering Al Qaeda suspects while some US officials have voiced suspicions that members of the network played a role in the May 12 attack that killed 35 people, including nine Americans in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Iran has vehemently denied the accusations and pointed out that it has rounded up and extradited 500 Al Qaeda suspects to their homelands, more than any other country.