Monday, January 19, 2004

PARIS — Syria’s Central Bank and the Medina Bank in Lebanon are holding at least $2 billion in cash, as well as gold bullion and platinum, that was smuggled out of Iraq, according to a letter written on the stationery of the Syrian army’s intelligence department.

The letter says $1.3 billion was deposited in the Syrian Central Bank in an official “presidency” account, while another $700 million was placed in the Medina Bank. The document does not state the value of the gold and platinum, although it says these are also in the Syrian Central Bank.

The handwritten letter to a Syrian exile in Europe, which also bears what appears to be the official stamp of the Syrian army intelligence department, says the deal was struck not long before a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq early last year.

The document was sent to Nizar Nayouf, an exiled Syrian human-rights activist and past winner of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Press Freedom Prize who is living in Paris.

While the claims in the letter could not be further verified, Mr. Nayouf, a journalist and democracy activist who was released from a Syrian prison in May 2001, said past information provided by the same person had proved reliable.

The letter names two members of the Lebanese parliament as go-betweens.

One of them is Emil Lahoud, son of the pro-Syrian president of Lebanon. The second is Talal Arsilan, a member of the minority Druze ethnic group. A third go-between is listed as Karim Bakr Adouni, who is described as head of the al Qata’ib Party.

The letter says the go-betweens met with three top Syrian security chiefs before they left on their secret trip to Baghdad.

One security chief is listed as Gen. Ghazi Kanaan, Syria’s former chief of military intelligence in Lebanon, who has since been put in charge of Syria’s political security department. Other sources say Gen. Kanaan helped provide means of transporting the money and precious metals across the Iraqi-Syrian border.

The other senior Syrian officers are listed in the document as Brigadier Zulhimmah Shalish, who is believed to be the chief of President Bashir Assad’s Special Guards, and Gen. Ristom Ghazali, the chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon.

Lebanon has been under varying degrees of Syrian domination for more than two decades.

American authorities have long suspected that Syria took Saddam Hussein’s money into safe custody shortly before the war. The Treasury Department sent senior investigators to Syria in October and again this month, demanding that the Syrians open their books.

Saddam is believed to have stashed vast sums of money around the world, including funds that he and close associates siphoned from the United Nations’ oil-for-food program beginning in 1996.

Money deducted from officials’ salaries supposedly to support Saddam’s Ba’ath Party is also unaccounted for.

Saddam’s son Uday hauled away about $1 billion from the Iraqi Central Bank in three trucks just as the war started, but coalition officials say most of that money has been recovered. It was headed toward Syria when intercepted, they say.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell went to Syria soon after the war ended and publicly warned Mr. Assad to cooperate in tracking Iraqi fugitives and money.

Mr. Assad has become much more active lately in seeking to reduce American pressure. He recently made the first official visit to neighboring Turkey after decades of tension over the latter’s pro-Western stance.

Mr. Assad also made the first official Syrian presidential visit to Britain in December 2002 as the United States and Britain were preparing for the war in Iraq.

“The U.S. has Syria firmly in its sights,” said one analyst, “and Assad may feel compelled to admit the Iraqi money is there, if only to reduce American pressure for changing his regime.”

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