Powell, on a quick Mideast trip, was carrying a request from FBI Director Louis Freeh asking that U.S. investigators be allowed to question two or more suspects in the Khobar Towers bombing men the U.S. believes may be in Saudi custody, but whom the Saudis have never acknowledged arresting.
CBS News reported last week that federal investigators believe they now know who planned and carried out the attack, and are close to preparing a formal indictment naming some two dozen suspects including at least one senior official in Iran.
The servicemen were killed when a truck loaded with explosives pulled up outside their barracks in Dahran, Saudi Arabia, on June 25, 1996, and detonated. Nearly 100 FBI agents spent up to a year on the case, but were eventually recalled when U.S. officials complained of a lack of cooperation from Saudi Arabia.
Sources say approximately 11 months ago, however, investigators got a break in the case and are now awaiting only a few more pieces of evidence from Saudi Arabia before recommending an indictment.
U.S. investigators essentially believe they've done all they can, and believe they must have Saudi assistance now in order to wrap the case up. The challenge, said one source, is how to put it all together in an indictment that would meet U.S. prosecutorial standards.
It is not clear how much of the case was developed independently by U.S. investigators and how much came from Hani Al-Sayegh, a Saudi citizen arrested in Canada in 1997 who initially agreed to tell the FBI about his role in the Khobar Towers attack only to recant and be returned to Saudi Arabia, where he is still imprisoned.
Sources say several of the suspects are in Iran including one identified as Ahmad Sherifi, a senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
The White House and Pentagon have been briefed on the case and when the final elements of the investigation are in place, Attorney General John Ashcroft is expected to present the findings to President Bush who may face the difficult choice between legal actions and a military response.
U.S. policy is already complicated because it has been encouraging new, moderate leadership in Iran where elections will be held in June.
Several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, have also been attempting to build new ties with Iran.
The new emphasis on this case is in response, too, to the recent attack on the USS Cole. There is a strong sense among some senior officials that the time is long overdue to start pointing specific fingers of blame for the deaths of U.S. servicemen and women overseas.
©MMI, Viacom Internet Services Inc., All Rights Reserved