Tuesday, July 5, 2005

Syrians are increasing assistance to foreign fighters preparing to enter Iraq and kill civilians and U.S. troops, despite months of pressure on Damascus from Washington to crack down on the jihadists.

A U.S. official said recent intelligence shows that Syria is the home to Web sites that exhort militants to come to the country for preparation to fight and die in Iraq.

Syrians also are providing barracks-like housing as the recruits from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Morocco and other Muslim countries prepare for a jihad, or holy war. The fighters also receive weapons, training and money in Syria.

The Syrian government denies that it is helping the terrorists. American commanders in Iraq have refrained from publicly saying the Ba’athist regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is actively assisting the insurgency.

The Web sites and housing are why U.S. commanders, in hearings last month, referred to Syria’s capital of Damascus as the “hub” for foreigners entering Iraq and carrying out daily suicide car bombings.

Previously, officials have said that terrorists receive phony identification cards and passports in Syria and that they use the papers to cross Iraq’s porous border. But fresh intelligence reports show that the staging in Syria is becoming more elaborate, the official said.

U.S. officials say privately that they think it is impossible for hundreds of jihadists to move in and out of Syria on a weekly basis without the government’s approval.

Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the region, testified on Capitol Hill last month that the flow of foreign terrorists from Syria is increasing, despite Washington’s sending high-powered delegations to Damascus to warn of serious consequences and its imposing economic sanctions.

Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, has denied repeatedly that his Ba’athist government aids Iraq-bound terrorists. When U.S. officials made similar charges a month ago, Mr. Moustapha told CNN that Syria was ending anti-terrorism cooperation with Washington.

He added, “We are trying to tell the United States: ‘We are willing to engage with you constructively. We want a good relationship with you, but you have to stop this unfair media campaign against Syria, because we think it is unfair and it is unconstructive.’”

Over the weekend, the Syrian Arab News Agency reported that government troops clashed with militants near Damascus and captured Jordanian Sharif Aye Saeed al Smady. The Associated Press reported that al Smady had escaped from a Jordanian courthouse, where he had been on trial on murder charges.

The announcements seemed timed to counter Washington’s criticisms that Syria is not doing enough to stop the Syria-to-Iraq terror route.

The Syrian border influx creates an acute problem for the coalition. Troops conduct sweeps in the area and kill scores of foreigners, only to see them replaced by new jihadists coming across the border.

Administration officials have concluded in recent months that the long-term answer to defeating the foreign invasion is to bring more Iraqi Sunni leaders into the Shi’ite-dominated government. Once the Sunnis view the new Iraq as their Iraq as well, they will cease to support the foreigners who move among safe houses in their communities, a second U.S. official told The Washington Times in an interview.

At a press briefing last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was asked whether it was time to take the fight across the border into Syria. Mr. Rumsfeld said such decisions are made at the White House.

He also said it is up to the new Iraq government to pressure Damascus.

“It seems to me it’s up to Syria’s neighbors, including Iraq, to interact with Syria in a way that helps them understand the damage they’re doing to the region,” he said.

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