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Rebels Aided By Allies in Syria, U.S. Says

Baathists Reportedly Relay Money, Support

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2004; Page A01

U.S. military intelligence officials have concluded that the Iraqi insurgency is being directed to a greater degree than previously recognized from Syria, where they said former Saddam Hussein loyalists have found sanctuary and are channeling money and other support to those fighting the established government.

Based on information gathered during the recent fighting in Fallujah, Baghdad and elsewhere in the Sunni Triangle, the officials said that a handful of senior Iraqi Baathists operating in Syria are collecting money from private sources in Saudi Arabia and Europe and turning it over to the insurgency.

Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar agrees that rebels get help in Syria. (Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

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Audio: Interim Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar says insurgents are made up of "terrorists," 80% of whom are former Baathists.
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The Washington Post's Thomas Ricks discusses his story on the connection between Syria and the Iraqi insurgents.

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In some cases, evidence suggests that these Baathists are managing operations in Iraq from a distance, the officials said. A U.S. military summary of operations in Fallujah noted recently that troops discovered a global positioning signal receiver in a bomb factory in the western part of the city that "contained waypoints originating in western Syria."

Concerns about Syria's role in Iraq were also expressed in interviews The Washington Post conducted yesterday with Jordan's King Abdullah and Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar. "There are people in Syria who are bad guys, who are fugitives of the law and who are Saddam remnants who are trying to bring the vicious dictatorship of Saddam back," Yawar said. "They are not minding their business or living a private life. They are . . . disturbing or undermining our political process."

Abdullah noted that the governments of both the United States and Iraq believe that "foreign fighters are coming across the Syrian border that have been trained in Syria."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials have previously complained about Syria's role in Iraq, but officials said the latest intelligence has given impetus to new efforts aimed at curbing the activities of the Hussein loyalists there. The U.S. government recently gave the government of Syria a list of those officials, with a request that they be arrested or expelled, a State Department official said yesterday.

"We're bringing quite a bit of pressure to bear on them, and I think some of it is working," said another official, who works in federal counterterrorism efforts. Like other officials interviewed for this article, he declined to be identified by name or position because of the sensitivity of his specialty.

One briefing slide in a classified summary of new intelligence data also says that new diplomatic initiatives are being used to encourage the Syrian government to detain or expel the Iraqi Baathists. "The Syrians appear to have done a little bit to stem extremist infiltration into Iraq at the border, but clearly have not helped with regards to Baathists infiltrating back and forth," said a senior U.S. military officer in the region. "We still have serious challenges there, and Syria needs to be doing a lot more."

The Syrian ambassador to the United States emphatically rejected the accusations as unfounded. "There is a sinister campaign to create an atmosphere of hostility against Syria," said Imad Moustapha, the envoy. He said his government "categorically" denies that Iraqi Baathists are taking refuge in his country. "We don't allow this to happen," he said. "Iraqi officials were never welcome."

As described by defense officials, new intelligence on the insurgency suggests some other emerging problems, such as how extensively U.S. operations in Iraq have been penetrated by members of the insurgency and by people sympathetic to it.

The Green Zone in central Baghdad, home of the U.S. Embassy and the offices of the interim Iraqi government, is especially "overrun with agents," said one Defense Department official who recently returned from Iraq. One activity that has been noticed is that when major convoys leave the zone, Iraqi cell phone calls from the zone seem to increase, he said. An additional concern is that the insurgency seems to be using some Iraqi companies to get into U.S. bases, he said.

Jeffrey White, a former Middle Eastern analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the Syrian role is part of what many intelligence officials believe are the increasingly organized attacks on U.S. forces. "In the last two months or so, this notion that this is a Baathist insurgency has gained dominance in the [intelligence] community," he said. Coupled with that, he said, "there is an increasing view that Syria is at the center of the problem."

Not everyone with first-hand knowledge of the intelligence is convinced that the United States really has a strong grasp of the nature of the insurgency, especially the idea that the insurgency is being directed from the top down. Some Special Forces officers contend that many of the small-scale roadside attacks with bombs or rocket-propelled grenades are mounted not on orders of a hierarchical organization, but rather by Iraqis working more or less alone who feel they have been humiliated by U.S. soldiers, or who simply dislike the occupation.

"I just don't have the sense that we're getting to where we need to be," said one Defense Department official. "We don't know where the enemy is."

The argument over the nature of the insurgency has also provoked some infighting over a classified briefing given late last month to Rumsfeld about steps U.S. forces could take in Iraq to put down the militants. One of the slides in the briefing, delivered by Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, deputy director for Middle Eastern affairs on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended actions that would "intimidate the intimidators."

Some U.S. officials in Baghdad resented the briefing, which they saw not only as a form of long-distance micromanagement but also as misguided in its recommendations. For example, some fear that it could lead to a resumption of the tough tactics used sometimes last year as the insurgency emerged, such as taking families hostage to compel an insurgent leader to turn himself in. Subsequent internal Army reviews have criticized such tactics as counterproductive.

One person familiar with the situation said that Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. general in the region, was sent a copy of the briefing and responded by sending a classified cable politely dismissing it and stating that he believes that U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq have the situation in hand. A spokesman at Abizaid's headquarters, the U.S. Central Command, declined to comment on that exchange.

Neither Lawrence T. Di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman, nor Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, the spokesman for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had any comment for this article.

Staff writers Peter Baker and Robin Wright contributed to this report.

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