By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/12/2003 2:11:34 PM ET 2003-12-12T19:11:34

A highly regarded military affairs think tank in London is warning that Iraq is a rallying point for al-Qaida — and that the United States was overconfident when it said it had turned the corner in the war on terror. The International Institute of Strategic Studies issued that report at a time when the United States was again under attack in Iraq.

Another American convoy was ambushed Thursday in Fallujah — this time three U.S. soldiers were wounded, but no one was killed. But U.S. officials fear far more devastating and deadly plans are in the works — planned by al-Qaida.

Twenty years ago next week, a terrorist bombing killed 241 Marines in Beirut, Lebanon. Now, U.S. military and intelligence officials believe al-Qaida may be planning a similar large-scale attack against large concentrations of U.S. troops in Iraq.

A report released this week by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London says al-Qaida is best prepared to pull it off. The purpose? “To drive, to first drive home the message to the United States that its presence whether in Saudi Arabia or in Iraq or anywhere else in Islam will not be tolerated,” said Jonathan Stevenson of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. “If they can’t hit the U.S. in its own territory, they would look for the best possible symbolic result against some more exposed target,” he added.

Military intelligence officials believe al-Qaida operations in Iraq are being led by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi — a top al-Qaida operative, who also has ties to Ansar al-Islam, a smaller terrorist group based primarily in Iraq.

Those intelligence officials say since the war with Iraq, Zarqawi’s been constantly on the move — from Iraq to Iran, back to Iraq and recently into and out of Syria and Turkey.

Experts believe the large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq are a much easier target to al-Qaida than any potential targets in the United States. “We have al-Qaida operatives that have moved in country, because why come here when it’s easier to cross the street rather than the ocean to carry out attacks against Americans?” said terrorism expert Neil Livingstone.

In Tikrit, Iraq, on Thursday, there was a memorial service for two U.S. soldiers killed in attacks earlier this week.

Military officials say there’s no evidence al-Qaida was responsible, but believe it’s only a matter of time.

Officials here are confident U.S. troops in military compounds in Iraq are much better protected now than the Marines were in Beirut — but fear that al-Qaida is also much better at finding the soft spots.

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