By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 11, 2009
Last October, as the Bush administration was touting a dramatic drop in the number of suicide bombings in Iraq, four young Tunisian men left their homes for Libya and then headed to Syria. There, they were met at the Damascus airport and taken to a safe house.
Six tedious months passed until their handlers felt that it was safe to move the men again. In April, they were smuggled across the Iraqi border; within days, two were dead, among the suicide bombers who have killed at least 370 Iraqis in a wave of attacks over the past several weeks.
The third Tunisian disappeared. The fourth was captured and, according to a senior U.S. military official, provided interrogators with this account of their travels.
His statement, combined with what other sources had previously indicated to U.S. and Iraqi intelligence, confirmed what American officials had suspected: After a long hiatus, the Syrian pipeline operated by the organization al-Qaeda in Iraq is back in business.
The revival of a transit route that officials had declared all but closed comes as the Obama administration is exploring a new diplomatic dialogue with Syria. At the same time, Washington remains concerned by Syrian activities -- including ongoing support for the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as activities involving Iraq.
On Wednesday, acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey D. Feltman and National Security Council official Daniel Shapiro arrived in Syria for their second visit since Barack Obama's inauguration as president. Two days later, however, Obama renewed U.S. sanctions against Syria, accusing Damascus of supporting terrorism in the Middle East and undermining Iraqi stability.
"I think it sends the message that we have some very serious concerns," Robert Wood, a State Department spokesman, said of the sanctions renewal. Feltman, he added, was "in Damascus to talk about . . . how we can get Syria to change its behavior and see if it's willing to really engage seriously in a dialogue, be a positive role in the Middle East. Up until now, Syria hasn't played that positive role."
The Damascus government made no public comment on the Feltman-Shapiro visit. Efforts to reach the Syrian Embassy in Washington on Friday, before it closed for the weekend, were unsuccessful.
The Bush administration frequently criticized Syria for the transit of foreign fighters, suggesting that the authoritarian government of President Bashar al-Assad was involved in the traffic. But U.S. military and intelligence officials remained less certain.
"What we think right now is that we just don't know how much their senior leaders know about the foreign fighter network," said the senior U.S. military official, who discussed intelligence matters last week on the condition of anonymity. "As you can imagine . . . if they knew, it's not something they would be talking about."
"But we do think that the knowledge of these networks exists at least within the Syrian intelligence community," he said. "What level, if it's low or high up, we just don't have a good gauge on."
Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, told Congress late last month that the al-Qaeda in Iraq pipeline through Syria had been "reactivated." Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, confirmed Friday that "some elements of foreign fighters continue to traffic through Syria." But officials have been careful not to directly accuse Damascus of supporting the traffic.
Syria, Odierno said, "has the opportunity" to stop it. He called on the Syrian government to "demonstrate a commitment to eliminating the use of its soil as a staging area."
Overall violence in Iraq is "at or near the lowest level since the summer of 2003," Odierno said in a news conference, but the recent suicide attacks "remind all of us that the situation still is fragile in some areas." He said that the "high-profile attacks" in and around Baghdad, the capital, and Mosul were designed to "garner attention and spark sectarian discord" as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Iraqi cities by this summer and from the country by the end of next year.
The military is particularly concerned about the area around Mosul, in the northwest near the Syrian border, which officials have described as the last bastion of al-Qaeda in Iraq's strength. U.S. and Iraqi officials have accused the Sunni group in all the recent attacks, perpetrated against Shiite neighborhoods and shrines.
The flow of foreign fighters through Syria reached a high of 80 to 100 a month in mid-2007, the senior military official said, most of them would-be suicide "martyrs" increasingly recruited from extremist communities in North Africa by jihadist Web sites and networks abroad. But as overall security in Iraq improved later that year, the numbers began to drop. In December, as U.S. and Iraqi troops increased security measures coinciding with Iraqi elections, the traffic reached an all-time low, into the single digits.
"There was a period right after the elections where we were probably seeing less than half a dozen foreign fighters being pushed through the network," the official said. "In January and February, probably even less than that."
More recently, he said, the estimate has risen to 20 a month, and various intelligence sources have noted an increased "demand call" for foreign fighters. The leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the official said, determines "that conditions are right that they can conduct attacks. They will talk to their facilitators, and they will ask for bombers, ask for supplies."
Security along the Iraq-Syria border and elsewhere has deteriorated since the elections, the official and others said. Iraqi border interdiction efforts have been hindered by a chronic shortage of fuel, which keeps border police grounded for weeks at a time, and by corruption within their ranks, U.S. military officials in Iraq said.
Iraq's budget -- which has shrunk because of slipping oil prices -- has in recent months forced the Interior Ministry to halve its fuel stipend for border teams. "They can only operate 15 days" in a month, Col. Nawat Salar, commander of an Iraqi border police brigade near the Syrian border, told an American general during a recent meeting.
In the meantime, the senior U.S. military official said, Iraqi vigilance in general has decreased since the elections, and al-Qaeda in Iraq has "been able to rebuild the network."
"Frankly," he said, "you can't keep 100 percent alert 100 percent of the time. It gives the enemy the opportunity to identify gaps and weaknesses."
Correspondent Ernesto Londoño in Baghdad contributed to this report.