Thursday, February 24, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraqi state television aired a video yesterday showing what the U.S.-funded channel said was the confession of a captured Syrian officer, who said he trained Iraqi terrorists to behead people and build car bombs to attack American and Iraqi troops.

He also said the terrorists practiced beheading animals to train for decapitating hostages.

Later, Al Iraqiya aired another round of interviews with men it said were Sudanese and Egyptians who also trained in Syria to carry out attacks in Iraq.

Syrian officials could not be reached for comment on the claims.

The videos come as the Bush administration is stepping up pressure on Syria to stop meddling in Iraqi affairs by allowing rebels to cross into the country to fight coalition troops and by harboring former Iraqi regime members. Syria has denied the charges.

In the first video, the man, identified as Lt. Anas Ahmed al-Essa of the Syrian intelligence service, said his group had been recruited to “cause chaos in Iraq … to bar America from reaching Syria.”

“We received all the instructions from Syrian intelligence,” Lt. al-Essa, 30, said on a video broadcast by state-run Al Iraqiya, which can be seen nationwide.

The first tape apparently was made in the northern city of Mosul, but no date was provided. It was not possible to authenticate the claims.

The State Department said they were looking into the report, but as of late yesterday, they could neither confirm nor deny the veracity of the broadcast or that a Syrian intelligence officer had been captured.

The Al Iraqiya channel is thought to be widely watched by Iraqis — mainly those who cannot afford satellite dishes offering the Gulf-based Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya stations.

But the station, which went on the air in May 2003 with help from the Pentagon, is viewed by many Iraqis as an American propaganda tool.

Top officials in Iraq’s interim government have called on Syria to hand over former Iraqi Ba’athists who fled there after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which Syria opposed.

In the video, the bearded Lt. al-Essa, dressed in a gray jacket and shirt, claimed to be leader of the al-Fateh Army, which has not been heard of before.

He was one of 11 men on camera who said they were recruited by Syrian intelligence officers. The other 10 were identified as Iraqis.

Lt. al-Essa said his need for money was the motive for accepting an offer by a Syrian intelligence colonel whom he identified as Fady Abdullah to carry out attacks inside Iraq.

“I was trained on explosives, killing, spying, kidnapping … and after one year, I went to Iraq with Fady Abdullah,” Lt. al-Essa said.

He said he infiltrated Iraq in 2001, about two years before the U.S. invasion, because Syrian intelligence was convinced American military action loomed.

Another man, Shawan al-Sabaawi, was identified as a former lieutenant colonel in Saddam Hussein’s army. He said he received training from Syrian intelligence on how to behead hostages.

Lt. al-Essa said the group used animals for training in beheadings. He said it required “at least 10 beheadings” for a member to be promoted to a group leader.

“I had to send a report to Syria about how the operations are going,” he said.

Weapons, explosives and equipment were all provided by Syrian intelligence, Lt. al-Essa said. He added that the group members received $1,500 a month.

International pressure on Syria has grown since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who died along with 16 others in a massive explosion in Beirut.

The Lebanese opposition blames the killing on the Damascus government and its Syrian backers. Syria has 15,000 soldiers in Lebanon and is under growing international pressure to withdraw.

In Iraq yesterday, terrorists continued attacking civilians.

A car bomb killed two persons and wounded 14 in the northern city of Mosul. Its target was not clear. Witnesses said no U.S. or Iraqi forces were in the area.

A soldier from the U.S. Task Force Liberty was killed when assailants set off the bomb near Tuz, 105 miles north of Baghdad, the military said.

Near the northern oil city of Kirkuk, two Iraqi civilians were killed and another seriously wounded when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the car in which they were traveling, police said.

Back in Mosul, U.S. soldiers fatally shot a civilian in a pickup truck who approached their convoy too closely to pass it, policeman Ahmed Rashid said.

Separately, CBS News reported last night that investigators have decided not to charge a U.S. Marine who was filmed killing a wounded Iraqi during the November assault on Fallujah, citing a lack of evidence.

But a Marine spokesman last night said the case “is still very much open.”

The shooting occurred during a search of a mosque and was condemned by human rights groups, but investigators said the Marines thought the wounded Iraqi might have been reaching for a weapon.

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