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U.S.: Iraq rebels aided by sources in Syria

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U.S.: Iraq rebels aided by sources in Syria

Baathists reportedly relay money, support

By Thomas E. Ricks

Updated: 6:45 a.m. ET Dec. 8, 2004

WASHINGTON - U.S. military intelligence officials have concluded that the Iraqi insurgency is being directed to a greater degree than previously recognized from Syria, where they said former Saddam Hussein loyalists have found sanctuary and are channeling money and other support to those fighting the established government.

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Based on information gathered during the recent fighting in Fallujah, Baghdad and elsewhere in the Sunni Triangle, the officials said that a handful of senior Iraqi Baathists operating in Syria are collecting money from private sources in Saudi Arabia and Europe and turning it over to the insurgency.

In some cases, evidence suggests that these Baathists are managing operations in Iraq from a distance, the officials said. A U.S. military summary of operations in Fallujah noted recently that troops discovered a global positioning signal receiver in a bomb factory in the western part of the city that "contained waypoints originating in western Syria."

Concerns about Syria's role in Iraq were also expressed in interviews The Washington Post conducted yesterday with Jordan's King Abdullah and Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar. "There are people in Syria who are bad guys, who are fugitives of the law and who are Saddam remnants who are trying to bring the vicious dictatorship of Saddam back," Yawar said. "They are not minding their business or living a private life. They are . . . disturbing or undermining our political process."

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Abdullah noted that the governments of both the United States and Iraq believe that "foreign fighters are coming across the Syrian border that have been trained in Syria."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials have previously complained about Syria's role in Iraq, but officials said the latest intelligence has given impetus to new efforts aimed at curbing the activities of the Hussein loyalists there. The U.S. government recently gave the government of Syria a list of those officials, with a request that they be arrested or expelled, a State Department official said yesterday.

"We're bringing quite a bit of pressure to bear on them, and I think some of it is working," said another official, who works in federal counterterrorism efforts. Like other officials interviewed for this article, he declined to be identified by name or position because of the sensitivity of his specialty.

One briefing slide in a classified summary of new intelligence data also says that new diplomatic initiatives are being used to encourage the Syrian government to detain or expel the Iraqi Baathists. "The Syrians appear to have done a little bit to stem extremist infiltration into Iraq at the border, but clearly have not helped with regards to Baathists infiltrating back and forth," said a senior U.S. military officer in the region. "We still have serious challenges there, and Syria needs to be doing a lot more."

Syrian denials

The Syrian ambassador to the United States emphatically rejected the accusations as unfounded. "There is a sinister campaign to create an atmosphere of hostility against Syria," said Imad Moustapha, the envoy. He said his government "categorically" denies that Iraqi Baathists are taking refuge in his country. "We don't allow this to happen," he said. "Iraqi officials were never welcome."

As described by defense officials, new intelligence on the insurgency suggests some other emerging problems, such as how extensively U.S. operations in Iraq have been penetrated by members of the insurgency and by people sympathetic to it.

The Green Zone in central Baghdad, home of the U.S. Embassy and the offices of the interim Iraqi government, is especially "overrun with agents," said one Defense Department official who recently returned from Iraq. One activity that has been noticed is that when major convoys leave the zone, Iraqi cell phone calls from the zone seem to increase, he said. An additional concern is that the insurgency seems to be using some Iraqi companies to get into U.S. bases, he said.

Jeffrey White, a former Middle Eastern analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the Syrian role is part of what many intelligence officials believe are the increasingly organized attacks on U.S. forces. "In the last two months or so, this notion that this is a Baathist insurgency has gained dominance in the [intelligence] community," he said. Coupled with that, he said, "there is an increasing view that Syria is at the center of the problem."

Not everyone with first-hand knowledge of the intelligence is convinced that the United States really has a strong grasp of the nature of the insurgency, especially the idea that the insurgency is being directed from the top down. Some Special Forces officers contend that many of the small-scale roadside attacks with bombs or rocket-propelled grenades are mounted not on orders of a hierarchical organization, but rather by Iraqis working more or less alone who feel they have been humiliated by U.S. soldiers, or who simply dislike the occupation.

"I just don't have the sense that we're getting to where we need to be," said one Defense Department official. "We don't know where the enemy is."

'Intimidate the intimidators'

The argument over the nature of the insurgency also has provoked some infighting over a classified briefing given late last month to Rumsfeld about steps U.S. forces could take in Iraq to put down the militants. One of the slides in the briefing, delivered by Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, deputy director for Middle Eastern affairs on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended actions that would "intimidate the intimidators."

Some U.S. officials in Baghdad resented the briefing, which they saw not only as a form of long-distance micromanagement but also as misguided in its recommendations. For example, some fear that it could lead to a resumption of the tough tactics used sometimes last year as the insurgency emerged, such as taking families hostage to compel an insurgent leader to turn himself in. Subsequent internal Army reviews have criticized such tactics as counterproductive.

One person familiar with the situation said that Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. general in the region, was sent a copy of the briefing and responded by sending a classified cable politely dismissing it and stating that he believes that U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq have the situation in hand. A spokesman at Abizaid's headquarters, the U.S. Central Command, declined to comment on that exchange.

Neither Lawrence T. Di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman, nor Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, the spokesman for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had any comment for this article.

Staff reporters Peter Baker and

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Iraq defense chief: Iran is ‘number one enemy’

Shaalan accuses neighbors of supporting insurgent groups

The Associated Press

Updated: 3:58 a.m. ET Dec. 15, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq’s defense minister on Wednesday accused neighboring Iran and Syria of supporting insurgents in his war-ravaged country.

Hazem Shaalan also accused Iran of backing the al-Qaida in Iraq terrorist group headed by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and said his country’s opponents want “turbaned clerics to rule in Iraq.â€

Shaalan said Iraqi authorities obtained information about Iran’s role in Iraqi’s insurgency after last month’s arrest of the leader of the Jaish Mohammed (Mohammed’s Army) terrorist group during U.S.-led operations in Fallujah.

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Trials of Iraqi officials will begin next week, Allawi says

“When we arrested the commander of Jaish Mohammed we discovered that key to terrorism is in Iran, which this the number one enemy for Iraq,†Shaalan told reporters in Baghdad.

On Nov. 15, Iraq’s interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said American forces detained Jaish Mohammed members, including the organization’s leader, Moayad Ahmed Yasseen, also known as Abu Ahmed, during the military operation to uproot insurgents based in Fallujah, west of Baghdad.

Allawi has said the group was known to have cooperated with Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaida and Saddam loyalists and has claimed responsibility for killing and beheading a number of Iraqis, Arabs and foreigners in Iraq.

The U.S. military has said in the past that Jaish Mohammed appears to be an umbrella group for former intelligence agents, army, security officials, and Baath Party members.

Shaalan accused Iranian and Syrian intelligence agents, plus operatives of deposed leader Saddam Hussein’s security forces, of “cooperating with the al-Zarqawi group to run criminal operations in Iraq,†adding that Syria and Iran was providing funds and training.

Both countries have previously rejected U.S. and Iraqi claims that they are supporting insurgents in Iraq. Damascus, however, has said it is unable to fully close its long, porous border with Iraq.

“They are fighting us because we want to build freedom and democracy and they want to build an Islamic dictatorship and have turbaned clerics to rule in Iraq,†he said, providing no further details.

© 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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December 15, 2004, 8:14 a.m.

Serious on Syria

Washington is at critical juncture.

By Walid Phares & Robert G. Rabil

In early October, just days after the Syrian leadership had reportedly promised a U.S. delegation to Damascus that it would cooperate with U.S. troops in controlling the Iraq-Syria border, President Bashar al-Assad delivered a confrontational speech criticizing U.S. efforts to force Syria from Lebanon, calling them blatant meddling in Lebanese affairs and saying they could push the Middle East toward greater chaos.

Against this backdrop, the Washington Post reported on December 8 that "US military intelligence officials have concluded that the Iraqi insurgency is being directed to a greater degree than previously recognized from Syria where they said former Saddam Hussein loyalists have found sanctuary and are channeling money and other support to those fighting the established government." Apparently, the Syrian leadership still thinks it can weather U.S. and world pressure by hedging its diplomacy. In fact, Syria is at a crossroads. The time is now ripe for the U.S. to articulate a strategy that would prod Damascus to end its double-standard attitudes while at the same time assisting the country in finding alternatives to its policies.

A STRAINED RELATIONSHIP

America's war on terrorism cast a scrutinizing light on Syria and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamist party. Syria condemned the September 11 attacks on the U.S. and offered its help in the war. Indeed, Damascus helped save American lives by assisting in foiling terror attacks on U.S. troops and interests in Bahrain and Ottawa.

Since the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, the U.S.-Syrian relationship has come under significant stress, largely because Damascus opposed the Bush administration's efforts to dislodge Saddam Hussein. This tension intensified during the U.S. invasion following intelligence reports that Syria had provided Iraq with military equipment, given safe haven to senior Iraqi officials, and allowed jihadists to cross the border into Iraq. Testifying before Congress in September 2003, John Bolton, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, said, "Syria permitted volunteers to pass into Iraq to attack and kill our service members during the war, and is still doing so. Syria continues to provide safe haven and political cover to Hizballah in Lebanon, which has killed hundreds of Americans in the past."

Although Syria denied these allegations, Damascus and Washington have set themselves on a collision course over terrorism and Iraq. Frustrated by Damascus's lack of cooperation, the Bush administration dropped its reservations against punishing Syria. Punishment came in the form of the 2003 Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act, which calls on Syria to stop its "support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, [and] stop its development of weapons of mass destruction..."

Ironically, where Assad senior had sacrificed Arab nationalism at the altar of Syria's national interests in general and regime security in particular, the young Assad has advanced Arab nationalism with the objective of countering U.S. plans in the region. Why has the Syrian leadership staked out this position? Apparently, it is concerned about future U.S. plans in the Middle East, particularly Washington's enforcing a Pax Americana at Syria's expense. This perception is buttressed by the fact that the idea of a regime change in Syria has been circulating in some neoconservative circles in Washington. In an interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anbaa, Assad said that "targeting Syria has preceded the war, and this is why we knew there will be threats after the war."

BASHAR'S BURDENS

On a closer look, however, this Syrian position has stemmed no less from the country's inability to articulate a strategy to meet regional and internal challenges. The Syrian leadership perceives that the security and survival of the regime is related no less to keeping a check on political and economic changes in Syria — and on political developments in Lebanon — than in Iraq, where it finds itself at the mercy of the only world superpower.

Damascus is facing several immediate intertwined concerns, blurring the lines between domestic and foreign affairs. Since his inauguration speech, in which he promised modernization and reform, Assad has been struggling with a reform movement growing bolder by the day. That movement is upset with the regime's selective and inconsistent policies, which are geared toward regulating the economy. In fact, the regime has satisfied none of the reformers' demands, which include revocation of martial law and security trials, and freedom of opinion and assembly. Instead, the regime has arrested a number of outspoken reformers, including parliamentarians Riad Seif and Mamoun Homsi and human-rights activist Aktham Nuaissi.

Burdened with a large public sector and high inflation and unemployment, the regime is trying to fix the system without breaking it. It is trying to copy the Chinese model by introducing some free-market policies that could promote growth without endangering the system itself. The economy is high on Assad's agenda, especially in light of the decline in profits from illegal Iraqi oil sales — that is, sales from Saddam's regime through Syria, against U.N. resolutions and the oil-for-food program — since the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Moreover, the Lebanese economy, which functions as a patronage system to reward regime's loyalists, has sunken into deep economic crisis.

Finally, Bashar seems to be trying to widen the circle of loyalists in the regime. A recent reshuffling of the government that included the appointment of Ghazi Kenaan — former intelligence chief in Lebanon — as interior minister indicates that Bashar is trying to strengthen his grip on power.

FLAWED INTELLIGENCE

The Syrian regime knows deep down that change is inevitable. As a result it has been hedging its diplomacy by attempting to reconcile incompatible policies. Its cooperation with Washington on al Qaeda has been markedly offset by lack of cooperation with the U.S. on Iraq and Hezbollah. This equivocal position has caught up with the Syrians. The Bush administration imposed sanctions on Syria and found in France an ally to pressure Damascus to withdraw from Lebanon and disband Hezbollah's militia. Thanks to their coordination, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1559, which called on all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon, insisted on the disbanding of Lebanese militias, and declared support for a free and fair presidential election. Damascus could no longer escape the gaze of the world community. Even Arab countries such as those of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) urged Syria to respect the resolution.

Still, Damascus made a big mistake by directing its loyalists in Lebanon to extend for three years the term of its ally, President Emile Lahoud, in the face of almost universal Lebanese opposition. Apparently, the Syrians chose stability above all by keeping Lahoud. Sticking to their old strategy, they wanted an ally in Lebanon who could withstand international pressure by insisting on the resistance role of Hezbollah and "special relations" with Syria. In addition, Damascus would maintain its strategic cooperation with Iran by keeping the Iran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis as an option against growing Israeli and American warnings about Tehran's nuclear plans.

However, what the Syrians have so far failed to realize is that since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in the summer of 2000 the political dynamics of the country have changed and, by extension, the Lebanese-Hezbollah strategy has outlived its purpose. It is no coincidence that many Lebanese, including Syrian allies, opposed the extension of Lahoud's term. Significantly, Walid Jumblat, leader of the Druze community, has been vocal in his opposition to amending the Lebanese constitution and extending the president's term. In the meantime, Marwan Hamade, a member of parliament and Jumblat's National Struggle Front narrowly escaped a recent assassination attempt. Even the most ardent of Syrian supporters knew that Syrian intelligence, in coordination with that of Lebanon, was behind the attempt. The Syrian record is long on the alleged assassinations of prominent Lebanese political figures, including the Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt in 1976, President-elect Bashir Jumayil in 1982, and President Rene Mouawad in 1989.

Following an outpouring of Lebanese condemnation of the assassination attempt, Hamade received a visit from Rustum Ghazale, Syrian intelligence chief to Lebanon, and Lebanon's public prosecutor Adnan Addoum. This signaled the confusion of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon as well as the breakdown of taboos buttressing Syrian power. It was under these circumstances that Kenaan, the master of balance-of-power politics in Lebanon, was appointed interior minister. His appointment, along with that of some other Bashar loyalists (including Lahoud and Omar Karame as Lebanon's prime minister) indicates that the Syrian regime is entrenching itself to better control domestic affairs in both Lebanon and Syria.

But Syria is in for hard times. Unlike in the past, Damascus is now under the spotlight of the U.N. Relying on U.N. support, the opposition may well swell its ranks and trigger a domestic recrimination of Lahoud that could force him out of power and bring down the Syrian order in Lebanon.

WANTED: A STRATEGY

On the surface, it is against this background that the Syrian regime is considering helping U.S. troops in Iraq to control the Syria-Iraq border. On a deeper level, however, Damascus (along with Tehran) would not like to see Iraq emerge as a bridgehead for a Pax Americana in the region. It would prefer to see the U.S. fail and even humiliate itself in Iraq. By directly or indirectly helping the insurgency, Damascus believes it can "kill two birds with one stone" — undermining American efforts in Iraq while highlighting its importance in pacifying the country.

But Washington would be wrong to think that the Syrian regime is looking only for a quid pro quo: helping the U.S. in Iraq so that Washington will reduce its pressure through the U.N. on Syria's presence and support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Damascus urgently needs to trade with Iraq and resume sales of Iraqi oil. In fact, following the visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to Syria in late July 2004, the two countries agreed not only to form joint committees to control the border but also to promote trade between them, which has been gradually rising since.

Washington is at critical juncture with its relations with Syria, which may further affect Washington's policies in Iraq. Washington must capitalize on the current situation and articulate a Syria strategy, recognizing that the Syrian regime will have to revert to its pragmatist approach in order to survive internal and regional challenges. Washington cannot promote democracy in Iraq and turn a blind eye to democracy in Lebanon. Washington must remain adamant about Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. Meanwhile, Washington should make it clear to Damascus that its genuine cooperation with the U.S. to control the Iraq-Syria border would entail American help in supporting the creation of a significant trade zone between Iraq and Syria, including reopening the oil pipeline between the two countries. At the same time, Washington should put a stop to all talks about removing the Baathist regime in Syria, because they are absurd and counterproductive under the current circumstances in Iraq. Progress on the Lebanese and Iraqi tracks should also pave the way for renewed peace talks with Israel regarding the Golan Heights.

The ball is in Syria's court. Its cooperation will be rewarded. Otherwise, the Syrian regime, under the scrutiny of the world community, will have no other choice but to gradually wither under the weight of its blunders, confusion, and despotic ways.

— Walid Phares is a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. Robert Rabil is a visiting professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon.

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