In pre-dawn raids in Tuscany, anti-terrorism police squads arrested the Algerian imam of a Florence mosque and four Tunisians Sunday in a crackdown on an Islamic extremist cell that was about to send potential suicide attackers to Iraq, Genoa's police chief said.
For some of those arrested, "their departure for Iraq was near," Police Chief Oscar Fiorolli said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press in Rome. "We don't know where in Iraq they were going, but they were willing to be suicide attackers."
Fiorolli said the suspects' alleged intentions were learned through telephone taps, and indicated authorities decided to make the arrests before they could leave Italy.
The suspects belonged to a cell of Ansar al-Islam, an organization based in northern Iraq with links to al-Qaida, the police chief said. The five were being investigated for suspected subversive association, he said.
Earlier, Fiorolli told reporters at a news conference in Genoa that " it was clear they intended to reach Iraq and strike Western targets."
A private Italian TV report said the group had also been scoping out potential Italian targets, including a multi-room cinema and a shopping mall on the outskirts of Florence, but Fiorolli denied that. "There is no indications they were planning an attack in Italy," the police chief told The AP.
Fiorolli said the imam, Maamari Rashid, had come to Italy to replace a Moroccan imam, Mohamed Rafik, arrested last year in Italy and wanted by Morroco for alleged involvement in the 2003 terrorist bombings in Casablanca. Rafik had been an imam in Florence before he went as a preacher to Cremona, where he was picked up in a crackdown on what investigators described as an important Islamic extremist cell based in northern Italy.
Although Sunday's raids on more than a dozen homes took place in Tuscany, Genoa investigators had led the probe because the suspects had legal residence in that northern port city, a major transit point in Italy for northern Africans, and the investigation began there.
Fiorolli said investigators seized large quantities of written material in the raids and were studying its content.
Twelve other North Africans were under investigation, Italian authorities said.
Fiorolli told reporters at the news conference that the probe had broken up a cell with ties to the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, which aims to overthrow the Algerian government. Its new leader has declared allegiance to al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden's terror network.
Italian authorities have approved Morocco's request for the extradition of Rafik, but investigators have said he is unlikely to be sent to Morocco while Italian probes of suspected Islamic terrorist cells continue.
Last month, Italian officials said that authorities were investigating links between an Islamic extremist in northern Italy and the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, focus of the probe into the March 11 Spain train bomb blasts and the attacks in Casablanca last year.
Anti-terrorism investigators have said that Italy is a key logistical base for Islamic terrorists, especially for recruitment of potential suicide attackers and procurement of false documents.