Fewer Foreigners Crossing Into Iraq From Syria to Fight

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007

The number of foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria has decreased noticeably in recent months, corresponding to a similar decrease in suicide bombings and other attacks by the group al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials.

"There is an early indication of a trend," said Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, in an interview. Border crossings from Syria that averaged 80 to 90 a month have fallen to "half or two-thirds of that over the last two or three months," Petraeus said.

An intelligence official said that "the Syrians do appear to be mounting a crackdown on some of the most hardened terrorists transiting through the country, particularly al-Qaeda-affiliated foreign fighters." The official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said there is also evidence that the Syrians have been stopping return crossings by foreign fighters leaving Iraq.

Other administration officials, while confirming the decrease in border crossings, said they are not yet prepared to attribute it to Syrian action, instead citing increased U.S. operations against al-Qaeda inside Iraq and stepped-up cooperation by terrorist "source" countries, such as Saudi Arabia, in prohibiting travel to Damascus. U.S. intelligence has said Saudis form the biggest group of foreigners fighting with al-Qaeda in Iraq. Petraeus also said his command is uncertain of the reason for the decrease, adding that "we're watching it on the ground."

A National Intelligence Estimate last month attributed an apparent crackdown in Syria to that government's concern about the threat al-Qaeda posed to its own stability. The NIE also assessed that Syria had stepped up its support to non-al-Qaeda groups to bolster their influence -- and that of Damascus -- in Iraq. Several Iraqi Sunni extremist groups opposed to the United States and al-Qaeda in Iraq are present in Damascus.

The Bush administration has said that interference from Iran and Syria helped spark and continues to fuel much of the sectarian violence in Iraq. Iran is charged with training, arming and funding Shiite militias. The al-Qaeda in Iraq organization, which largely consists of Iraqi Sunnis, is said to be led by foreigners whose primary route into Iraq is through Syria. Syria is also believed by U.S. officials to be the primary route for foreign terrorists moving out of Iraq to return to their home countries in Arab countries, Europe and North Africa.

Nascent U.S. diplomatic dialogues with Damascus and Tehran, begun last spring after demands by war critics and the Iraqi government, have been judged unproductive by the White House.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem met in May with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the highest level contact between the two governments in more than three years. The meeting, held in Egypt, took place in the context of a conference between Iraq and its regional neighbors and was also attended by the European Union and the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council.

Although Rice did not sit down with her Iranian counterpart, the conference led to two meetings this summer between the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Baghdad. But there has been no similar high-profile follow-through between Washington and Damascus. Last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who spent years of exile in Syria during the Iraqi governance of Saddam Hussein, visited Damascus for several days. U.S. officials also participated last month in a meeting in Damascus of a regional committee formed to address Iraqi refugee and border issues. An estimated 1 million Iraqis have fled to Syria to escape violence.

Rice plans to attend a second neighbors conference at the end of October in Istanbul, but U.S. policymakers have made no decision on whether they would seek or agree to another high-level meeting with Syria. "We haven't ruled it out yet," an administration official said. "I could speculate that if the end of October came and the numbers of suicide bombers had really dropped significantly and people . . . came to the conclusion there really had been a change in [Syrian] policy, that would give us every reason to have a meeting."

Just as it does with Iran, which the United States alleges is working toward production of a nuclear weapon, U.S. policy toward Syria is to separate Iraq-related issues from other points of contention.

The United States has labeled Syria a state sponsor of terrorism because of its support for Lebanese Hezbollah and other groups designated as terrorists. Washington and others have accused Syria of direct involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut, a charge Damascus denies.

The U.N. Security Council voted last May to establish an international tribunal to prosecute suspects in the Hariri bombing, which also killed 22 others. Early this month, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he will appoint the tribunal judges as soon as U.N. member nations allocate $35 million to fund the tribunal's operations for the first year and pledge an additional $85 million for the following two years.

Meanwhile, the White House and State Department have declined to confirm or deny recent reports that North Korea may be assisting Syria with a possible nuclear program. Although one State Department official said Friday that Washington has concerns in that direction, other officials expressed skepticism that North Korea would be conducting nuclear trade with Syria.

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