Al-Qaeda has regrouped in tribal areas of Pakistan and could use contacts and capabilities developed in Iraq to mount fresh attacks on US soil, a US intelligence estimate on Tuesday warned.

The report said the US had become harder for terrorists to strike since the September 2001 attacks, but that al-Qaeda would ­continue to attempt mass-casualty as­saults within the country.

“We are facing a persistent terrorist enemy led by al-Qaeda that remains driven and intent on attacking the homeland and that continues to adapt and improve its capabilities,” said Fran Townsend, White House homeland security adviser.

“Of most concern is that al-Qaeda will try to exploit the conflict in Iraq and
leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qaeda in Iraq.” National intelligence estimates bring together the views of all 16 US spy agencies, ma­k­ing them the most authoritative assessments of threats to the US. The report came amid growing concern about an al-Qaeda resurgence.

It was reported last week that a classified intelligence assessment had judged al-Qaeda to be stronger than at any time since September 2001. Tuesday’s declassified report confirmed that al-Qaeda had found havens in tribal areas of Pakistan and replaced leaders that had been captured or killed.

“Al-Qaeda has protected or regenerated three of four key elements in planning an attack on the [US]: a haven in Pakistan, operational lieutenants and top leadership,” Ms Townsend said.

She predicted that al- Qaeda would intensify efforts to achieve the fourth element needed for an attack: the placing of operatives inside the US. As a result of this risk, the US was in a “heightened threat environment”. “We have no credible information pointing to a specific imminent attack,” she said. “But the warning is clear and we are taking it seriously.”

Democrats said Tuesday’s report proved that the war in Iraq had made the US more vulnerable by giving al-Qaeda a new training and recruiting ground and by diverting attention and resources from pursuing terrorists elsewhere.

President George W. Bush acknowledged that al-Qaeda remained strong but insisted it was much weaker than before September 2001.

● US senators were last night preparing for a rare 24-hour debate engineered by the Democratic party to push Mr Bush and Republicans to end the war in Iraq.

However, the Republicans seemed certain to have the votes to block the Democratic plan to withdraw US combat troops by the end of April 2008.

Republicans denounced the action as a theatrical stunt by Democrats who have drawn fire from voters for failing to deliver on a 2006 campaign vow to withdraw troops.

The move came as James Nicholson, US veterans affairs secretary, announced his resignation to return to the private sector.

The department and the Pentagon have faced increasing criticism for the level of care received by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

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