Thursday, December 16, 2004

The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said yesterday that Syria’s government must do more to curb support for terrorists and former Saddam Hussein loyalists in Iraq who are using the Arab state as a base.

“I have two concerns with Syria,” Gen. George Casey, commander of multinational forces, told reporters during a Pentagon briefing. “One … is foreign fighters. We see a facilitation mode through Syria, foreign fighters coming into Iraq.”

Gen. Casey said he does not see direct Syrian government involvement in the flow of terrorists. “But it is coming through Syria, and I do believe they have the capability to stop it if they have the will to stop it.”

He provided details of the use of Syria as a base for insurgents a day after President Bush warned both Syria and Iran to stop meddling in Iraq.

The general met yesterday with Mr. Bush, along with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command. Syria was discussed during the meeting that included an update on operations in Iraq, a Pentagon official said.

Gen. Casey called Syria a “short-term threat” to Iraq and said the U.S. military has “fairly good information” that senior members of the former regime of Saddam are working in Syria to undermine Iraq.

The former Iraqi Ba’ath Party members are calling their group the “new regional command” and are “operating out of Syria with impunity, and providing direction and financing for the insurgency in Iraq” Gen. Casey said. “And that needs to stop.”

He said one of the officials working out of Syria is Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, the ousted vice president of Iraq under Saddam.

“He’s a back-and-forther,” Gen. Casey said of al-Duri. “He’s not necessarily in [Syria].”

Al-Duri is one of the most-wanted men by U.S. forces and is king of clubs in the U.S. deck of cards of most-wanted Iraqi officials. He is thought to be a key leader of the insurgent forces.

Gen. Casey said the Syrian government is making some effort to control the border with Iraq. Meetings of Iraqi and Syrian officials have been held as part of a joint cross-border committee to discuss the matter.

“But they are not going after the big fish, which is really the people we’re interested in,” he said. “We’re really interested in them going after the senior Ba’athists who are providing the direction and the financing for the insurgency inside Iraq.”

Senior Pentagon officials have been briefed in recent days on new information that unravels the intricate networks of Saddam loyalists and international terrorists who are using Syria as a main staging area for operations against U.S. and allied forces in Iraq.

A senior military officer in Baghdad said weapons and cash for insurgents — both foreign “jihadists,” or Islamists, and former Saddam loyalists — are coming from Syria.

“We know that the Ba’athists have used Syria and continue to use Syria,” the officer said. “They conduct operations planning, trying to figure out their political strategy, how they’re going to deal with the future Iraq, all based in Syria.”

Within the past week, Syria-based terrorists tried to drive a car filled with explosives into Iraq from Jordan for use in a suicide bomb, but it was intercepted at the border, the officer said.

The coordination among differing insurgent groups could end after the Jan. 30 elections.

“These groups want divergent end states for Iraq,” the officer said. “One wants to return to the power they had under Saddam, and the other wants to have an Islamic state.”

Gen. Casey said the U.S. troops who have died in Iraq “have given their lives to help 25 million Iraqis build a better life and to improve the security of the United States and the coalition.”

“And these young men and women went over there knowing that would be a possibility, and God bless them. That’s what makes this country great.”

Fighting in Iraq by the former regime members and foreign terrorists is expected to increase as national elections approach, Gen. Casey said. “It is going to be hard.”

The four-star general said the coalition forces are “broadly on track” to set up a democratically elected government in Iraq. Another goal is to create Iraqi security forces that can maintain order and prevent Iraq from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, he said.

“I believe we will get there by December ‘05,” Gen. Casey said, who added that Iran poses a danger to Iraqi security. “From a strategic perspective, Iran is a long-term threat to stability to Iraq.”

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