A suspected high-ranking operative of the Iraqi intelligence service, who is believed to have played a key role in a 1993 plot to assassinate former US president George Bush, has been spotted in Syria after arriving there from Tunisia, US officials said.
Faruq Hijazi, whose last official post was Saddam Hussein's ambassador to the North African nation, flew to Damascus from Tunis aboard a commercial jet Tuesday in an apparent attempt to seek refuge in the country following the toppling of the Iraqi government by US forces, said one of the US officials.
"I don't know whether he has been granted refuge or asylum," added the official, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity.
The discovery was certain to fuel new recriminations between the United States and Syria, which has already been accused of smuggling war materiel into Iraq, allowing foreign Islamic fighters, including members of Hezbollah, to cross its borders, and providing aid and comfort to former Saddam associates fleeing Baghdad.
US officials said "at least a handful" of former members of the Iraqi elite were currently in Syria, but did not offer any specifics.
Damascus has vehemently denied all charges.
US President George W Bush has used the plot to kill his father as one of the reasons for launching military action against Iraq, referring to Saddam Hussein last September as "the guy who tried to kill my dad."
The multi-stage plot, in which Hijazi is believed to have taken an active part, was uncovered by US and Kuwaiti intelligence services in the first half of 1993.
It called for exploding several powerful bombs during Bush's visit to Kuwait in April of that year, his first after the country's liberation from Iraqi occupation by a US-led coalition in 1991.
A remote-controlled car bomb was reportedly supposed to detonate during Bush's arrival in Kuwait City.
In case the first attack failed, a second car bomb was to be parked near a theatre where the former US president was scheduled to receive an honorary doctorate, according to sources familiar with the case.
In addition, a suicide bomber was supposed to strike, if the first two attacks did not work.
Following the capture of several key people involved in the plot by Kuwaiti authorities and an analysis of the bombs, the US Central Intelligence Agency and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation concluded that the explosives were Iraqi-made and that Saddam's intelligence service was behind the conspiracy.
US president Bill Clinton -- George Bush's successor -- retaliated by launching 23 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad in June 1993.
According to a US official, Hijazi was the third-ranking member of the Iraqi intelligence service at the time of the plot.
"He was certainly believed to have been involved in the planning work," said the US official.
Whether Hijazi's diplomatic post in Tunisia was just a cover for new clandestine activities remains unclear.
"He may well still be associated with Iraqi intelligence," one of the officials argued. "But it's hard to say."
Hijazi's name has been mentioned in connection with some of the most sensitive intelligence operations of the fallen Iraqi regime.
According to media reports, Saddam Hussein dispatched him to Afghanistan in 1998 to establish contacts with Osama bin Laden, the leader of the Al-Qaeda terror network responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States that claimed more than 3,000 lives.
Some European newspapers insisted Hijazi had a meeting in Prague prior to September 11 with Egyptian national Mohammed Atta, the alleged ringleader of the hijackers.
But "the US government was not able to substantiate that," the official cautioned.
Surprisingly, despite all of his alleged shady activities, Hijazi was not included in the Pentagon's much-publicized "deck of card" containing the names and pictures of 55 wanted top Iraqi officials that was distributed among US soldiers in Iraq.
Nevertheless, the US official pointed out that the former ambassador "certainly is somebody we are interested in."