Wednesday, August 27, 2003

A number of Saudis have been captured along with other foreign nationals seeking to attack American troops in Iraq, a U.S. official said yesterday.

Saudi officials in Washington said their government had done everything necessary to seal off the border with Iraq and that if some militants were crossing, it was because U.S. forces had failed to police the Iraqi side of the frontier.

“We have Saudi Arabian jihadists in detention in Iraq and in Baghdad,” Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Abu Dhabi TV in an interview.

“We’ve got a relatively few number of Saudis,” he went on, “but we have Yemenis and Sudanese, Syrians.”

He said he did not know how they got into Iraq and there was no suggestion that the Saudi government assisted them. He contrasted the attitude of the Saudis with that of Iran and Syria, whose borders he said were “particularly porous” and whose governments he accused of “not stopping fighters” from crossing into Iraq.

Mr. Armitage did not comment on the circumstances of the fighters’ detention or say how many were in U.S. custody. A State Department official who asked not to be named said: “Obviously, we’re in a situation of trying to verify identities. People may have false passports. … I’ve heard the ballpark figure of 15, and we’re pretty sure some of them are Saudis.”

A Saudi official in Washington said that if extremists were getting across the 475-mile-long border with Iraq, it was the responsibility of U.S. forces to stop them.

“We’ve done our duty on our side of the border by protecting it. … If there’s any infiltration happening, it’s because the United States as an occupying power has not done their job in protecting the border,” said Adel Al-Jubeir, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy.

Mr. Armitage acknowledged that the Saudis had asked the United States to do more.

“The government of Saudi Arabia has, as I recall, requested help from the American forces to try to help guard against that possibility [of infiltration] on the Iraqi side of the border,” he said.

Mr. Al-Jubeir said his government had no information about Saudi nationals in Iraq but — echoing the comments of U.S. and other officials — said that country had become a magnet for Islamic extremists from all over the world.

Mr. Al-Jubeir said the Saudis had tightened controls along the border before the war, concerned that elements of the Ba’athist regime might flee into Saudi Arabia or smuggle weapons of mass destruction out of the country.

But, he said, “Can we guarantee that no one has slipped across the border? No.”

He also said Saudi extremists might have gone to Iraq to fight the Americans, but that it was more likely they had traveled through neighboring states like Jordan.

“Can we absolutely say that there are no Saudis [in Iraq]? No. … Some of the cells we broke up in the northern areas [of the kingdom] included foreign nationals — Syrians — who were trying to smuggle people out of the country, but that was more toward the Jordanian border.”

One U.S. intelligence official who asked not to be identified said it was hard to establish the number of foreign fighters in Iraq.

“It’s more than dozens. It’s probably in the hundreds,” he said.

“I don’t think this is a case of people coming from third countries to loot, although you can’t rule that out. Any time we have detainees, we interview them and try to get to the bottom of their motivation,” a defense official said.

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