WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- Susanne Osthoff, the German archeologist kidnapped by Iraqi gunmen on Nov. 25 and released before Christmas was connected with her country's intelligence service, the BND, and had helped arrange a meeting with a top member of the terrorist organization al-Qaida, possibly Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi himself, according to well informed German sources Sunday.
The sources confirmed German press reports that the 43-year-old woman had worked for the BND in Iraq on a freelance basis, and had for some time even stayed in a German intelligence safe house in Baghdad.
A convert to Islam and a fluent Arabic speaker, Osthoff had lived in Iraq for over a decade, and was at one time married to an Iraqi. Archeology is a classic intelligence cover: T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) posed as an archeologist in the Middle East in the early part of the last century. But archeology is Osthoff's real profession. One Washington-based German source said Osthoff had been working on arranging a rendezvous with an al-Qaida member on behalf of a German intelligence agent in Iraq. Whether the meeting ever took place has not been revealed, but another source in Berlin, reached by telephone, said experts believed that the kidnapping may have been the work of a rival group, possibly within the same organization.
A day after Osthoff's release, the Germans had quietly freed and sent home to his native Lebanon Mohammed Ali Hamadi, a Hezbollah militant serving a sentence for killing a U.S. Navy diver in a hijacked TWA jetliner in 1985. Berlin officials denied any connection between Osthoff's release and Hamadi's after serving only 19 years of a life sentence. They said Hamadi had qualified for parole and the decision to free him had been taken by the state government in North Rhine Westphalia, where he was being held, not the Federal government. He was captured in Frankfurt in 1987 for his part in hijacking the TWA jetliner and killing the American navy diver, who was a passenger on the plane. The United States requested Hamadi's extradition, but the Germans refused, and instead tried and convicted him.
But both German sources said the real deal involving Osthoff's release had been the payment of a ransom to her terrorist captors by the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel. The ransom and Hamadi's release could well constitute a double embarrassment for Merkel on her scheduled "maiden" visit to Washington next week. Washington has always opposed pay ransom money on the grounds that it encourages more kidnapping.
Although Merkel has carried on her socialist predecessor Gerhard Schroeder's policy of staying out of Iraq, German intelligence is operating in the area, cooperating with U.S. counterparts both on the ground and in Washington, the sources said.
Contacts with homegrown Iraqi insurgent groups are now openly admitted by the U.S. authorities, according to news reports received over the weekend. One objective in talking to Sunni fighters loyal to former dictator Saddam Hussein, or other Sunni militant groups is to exploit growing differences with the "foreign fighters," in other words, al-Qaida, the reports said. Zarqawi's wholesale terrorist attacks on Iraqis as collaborators with the United States have bred growing resentment against al-Qaida, and the weekend reports spoke of clashes between foreign fighters and Sunni insurgents in various parts of the country.
Talks with the Sunni insurgents are also part of the groundwork for the U.N.-organized National Accord Conference, an inclusive forum set for the spring in Baghdad. The conference bringing together all Iraqi political and religious groups is a follow-up of the Arab League summit in Cairo last October. That meeting in the Egyptian capital called for an attempt to establish political dialogue with the insurgents in order to determine what they wanted. The script of the Baghdad conference is also expected to demand the withdrawal of all "foreign forces," which is not only a reference to the U.S.-led coalition, but also to non-Iraqi insurgents -- further widening the gap between Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida.
The Germans' tentative contacts with al-Qaida reflect Berlin's belief in the existence of another split within the Iraqi-based al-Qaida organization itself. While Zarqawi calls for the Americans to leave, their departure must be far from his intentions since it would undermine his terrorist mission. "Assuming the U.S. pullout continues, Zarqawi's days in Iraq are numbered," says a diplomatic source in Washington. This situation is forcing al-Qaida to think strategically about what to do next.