- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2005

LONDON — Iraqi Prime Minster Ibrahim al-Jaafari expressed confidence that a radical shift in the Syrian role in supporting and financing terrorist missions in Iraq was imminent.

Mr. al-Jaafari, in an interview Monday at the end of visits to Washington and London, said Syria had reversed its role in Lebanon, and would do so with Iraq. He said he plans to travel to Syria in the near future to press for an end to its “negative role” in supporting the Iraqi insurgency.

“For 30 years, the Syrians did not withdraw from Lebanon — yet look what has just happened in 29 days,” he said, referring to Syria’s withdrawal of troops and intelligence officers from its western neighbor.

Syria’s “wrong policy” in relation to Iraq also could be reversed, he said. He expected his visit to “affect positively” the security situation in Iraq.

Asked whether the Syrian authorities could prevent foreign militants from planning actions and crossing into Iraq from Syrian soil, Mr. al-Jaafari said: “Of course they could stop it if they want to.”

The 58-year-old prime minister, who is a physician and a Shi’ite from the generally pro-Islamist Al-Dawa party, was appointed after protracted negotiations that followed the January elections.

Lt. Gen. John Vines, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, recently estimated that 150 foreign volunteers cross into Iraq from Syria every month.

U.S. forces raiding a hideout near the Syrian border in the past few days said they found passports from Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Algeria and Tunisia — and a return airline ticket from the Libyan capital to Damascus, the Syrian capital.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently said: “It is a fact that terrorists come across the Syrian border. It is also a fact that Syria is a dictatorship with a very large intelligence community. And one has to assume they know it is going on in their country.”

Syria says it is tightening controls — and is planning to restrict the system of allowing any Arab citizen to travel to the country without a visa.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa has insisted that his country is doing all it can to stop the infiltration of foreign fighters and that the United States should cooperate with Syria rather than issue veiled threats.

Syria says it has detained more than 1,200 foreigners trying to cross into Iraq in the past few months. Some remain under detention and others have been deported. A lack of equipment, including night goggles, was hampering security efforts, the minister said.

Western and Iraqi intelligence say former members of ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime are based in Syria and are allowed to order operations, raise financing and spread the message of jihad.

Training camps for insurgents are said to exist inside Syrian territory close to the border with Iraq, and the “graduates” are smuggled across the border to join terrorist cells.

The London Times reported that at a recent meeting in a third country an Iraqi minister handed over to his Syrian counterpart a list of more than a dozen insurgency suspects living in Damascus. The list included names, addresses and the suspects’ role in planning attacks.

“What did the Syrians do with this information? Nothing. They allowed these people to continue their work,” the Iraqi minister was quoted as saying.

Mr. al-Jaafari did not provide The Washington Times with specific evidence to back his assertions of Syrian complicity. But he insisted that foreign fighters rather than homegrown insurgents pose the greater danger to his populace.

“A large proportion of the car bombings is from terrorists from outside Iraq,” he said. “It’s only a small number of people, but they wreak havoc.”

He said, however, that although the number of insurgent attacks countrywide was still high, there had been a sharp decrease in car bombings lately.

“Until recently, there were around 12 to 14 [car bombings] a day,” Mr. al-Jaafari said. “Now it’s down to one or two a day.”

He said he expected the number to decline further after his visit to Syria. He foresaw a steady improvement as political events unfolded.

“I expect that long before two years we will have good security for all our country,” he predicted.

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