A top Army general said yesterday that the Iraqi insurgency was being run in part by former senior Iraqi Baath Party officials operating in Syria who call themselves the "New Regional Command."
These men, from the former governing party of deposed president Saddam Hussein, are "operating out of Syria with impunity and providing direction and financing for the insurgency," said Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq. "That needs to stop," Casey said at a Pentagon briefing.
He called on the government of President Bashar Assad to do more to stop the insurgency from being managed by Iraqis hiding in Syria. "The Syrians are making some efforts on the border," he said. "But they are not going after the big fish, which is really the people that we're interested in. And we're really interested in them going after the senior Baathists."
Casey's comments echoed remarks by President Bush on Wednesday but provided new details, including the name of the leadership organization in Syria. In recent weeks, new intelligence on anti-U.S. forces in Iraq has led officials to focus increasingly on the sanctuary being provided there.
Casey contrasted his view of Syria's role with what he described as the more distant threat presented by Iran. The Iranian government's influence on Iraq needs to be watched, he said, but does not appear to pose a major problem in affecting next month's elections.
"I don't see substantial Iranian influence on this particular government that will be elected in January," he said. "I see Iran as more of a longer-term threat to Iraqi security . . . a long-term threat to stability in Iraq. If you look on the other side, I think Syria is a short-term threat, because of the support they provide to the former Baathist leaders that we see operating in and out of Syria."
Overall, Casey expressed optimism about the security situation in Iraq. "I feel that we're broadly on track in helping the Iraqi people complete their transition to a constitutionally elected government at the end of next year," he said. "We also believe that this objective is both realistic and achievable."
He said the strength of the Iraqi insurgency should not be overestimated. "They're a tough, aggressive enemy, but they're not 10 feet tall," he said.
The three areas that will be major priorities for strengthening the Iraqi government, he said, are intelligence functions, local policing and border patrols.