Saddam Hussein periodically removed guards on the Syrian border and replaced them with his own intelligence agents who supervised the movement of banned materials between the two countries, U.S. investigators have discovered.
The recent discovery by the Bush administration's Iraq Survey Group (ISG) is fueling speculation, but is not proof, that the Iraqi dictator moved prohibited weapons of mass destruction (WMD) into Syria before the March 2003 invasion by a U.S.-led coalition.
Two defense sources told The Washington Times that the ISG has interviewed Iraqis who told of Saddam's system of dispatching his trusted Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) to the border, where they would send border inspectors away.
The shift was followed by the movement of trucks in and out of Syria suspected of carrying materials banned by U.N. sanctions. Once the shipments were made, the agents would leave and the regular border guards would resume their posts.
"If you leave it to border guards, then the border guards could stop the trucks and extract their 10 percent, just like the mob would do," said a Pentagon official who asked not to be named. "Saddam's family was controlling the black market, and it was a good opportunity for them to make money."
Sources said Saddam and his family grew rich from this black market and personally dispatched his dreaded intelligence service to the border to make sure the shipments got through.
The ISG is a 1,400-member team organized by the Pentagon and CIA to hunt for Saddam's suspected stockpiles of WMD, such as chemical and biological agents. So far, the search has failed to find such stockpiles, which were the main reason for President Bush ordering the invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam.
But there is evidence of unusually heavy truck traffic into Syria in the days before the attack, and with it, speculation that some of the trucks contained the banned weapons.
"Of course, it's always suspicious," the Pentagon official said.
The source said the ISG has confirmed the practice of IIS agents going to the border. Investigators also have heard from Iraqi sources that this maneuver was done days before the war at a time of brisk cross-border movements.
That particular part of the disclosures has not been positively confirmed, the officials said, although it dovetails with Saddam's system of switching guards at a time when contraband was shipped.
The United States spotted the heavy truck traffic via satellite imagery before the war. But spy cameras cannot look through truck canopies, and the ISG has not been able to determine whether any weapons were sent to Syria for hiding.
In an interview in October, retired Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr., who heads the U.S. agency that processes and analyzes satellite imagery, said he thinks that Saddam's underlings hid banned weapons of mass destruction before the war.
"I think personally that those below the senior leadership saw what was coming, and I think they went to some extraordinary lengths to dispose of the evidence," said Gen. Clapper, who heads the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. "I'll call it an 'educated hunch.' "
He added, "I think probably in the few months running up prior to the onset of combat that I think there was probably an intensive effort to disperse into private homes, move documentation and materials out of the country. I think there are any number of things that they would have done."
Of activity on the Syrian border, Gen. Clapper said, "There is no question that there was a lot of traffic, increase in traffic up to the immediate onset of combat and certainly during Iraqi Freedom. ... The obvious conclusion one draws is the sudden upturn, uptick in traffic which may have been people leaving the scene, fleeing Iraq and unquestionably, I'm sure, material as well."
He also said, "Based on what we saw prior to the onset of hostilities, we certainly felt there were indications of WMD activity. ... Actually knowing what is going on inside a building is quite a different thing than, say, this facility may well be a place where there may be WMD."
The Iraq Survey Group, which periodically briefs senior officials and Congress, is due to deliver its next report in September. In addition to interviewing hundreds of Iraqis, the ISG has collected and cataloged millions of pages of documents, not all of which have been fully examined.
Although Syria and Iraq competed for influence in the region, they shared the same Ba'athist socialist ideology and maintained close ties at certain government levels. The United States accused Syria during the war of harboring some of Saddam's inner circle.