US hunt for 'missing' anthrax letters

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The Independent US

The American government suspects that at least one more letter steeped in anthrax has passed through the US postal service, raising fears of a new round of scares and infections.

The authorities had believed that all the cases in the Washington area could be traced back to the letter sent to the Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle, which led to the death of two Washington postal workers. But they now say the contamination of a worker at an entirely separate State Department distribution centre has effectively destroyed that hope.

The acknowledgement came as the mail centres of the Supreme Court, the CIA and a high-profile military hospital in Washington joined the growing list of government and media sites where the deadly disease has turned up.

US authorities seem no nearer finding out the source of the anthrax attacks than they were a week ago. The pendulum of suspicion appears to be swinging away from the al-Qa'ida network or hostile foreign states to homegrown domestic terrorists.

Most noticeably, in the anthrax search, as in the hunt for those behind the 11 September terrorist attacks, the Bush administration is bending over backwards to play down any Iraqi connection, despite repeated pointers that Saddam Hussein's regime might be involved. The latest of these came on Friday when the Czech government confirmed that Mohamed Atta, one of the ringleaders of the suicide hijacking plot, met an Iraqi intelligence officer, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, in Prague during a brief foray from the US in early April.

Publicly, US officials have refused to attach much importance to it. Anything which directly implicates Baghdad would – by the logic of Mr Bush's vow to go after not only terrorists but states which sponsored them – oblige Washington to mount an attack on Iraq. This would tear asunder the coalition of Arab and Muslim countries uneasily backing the war.

In the case of anthrax, Mr Bush aides prefer to talk of anything except links with Iraq, even though the latter is one of the three or four states which have produced the lethal anthrax spores found in the letter to Senator Daschle.