YANBU, SAUDI ARABIA, NOV. 4 -- After weeks of delay, the lead contingent of a Syrian armored division arrived in this Red Sea port today to join the multinational military forces arrayed against Iraq.
Saudi and Syrian officials said the contingent was the first of a promised 15,000-man armored division. Syrian military officers accompanying the troops said that between 2,500 and 3,000 soldiers were aboard the Saudi-owned commercial ship that transported them, but reporters were shown only about 220.
The Syrian vanguard, which had boarded their ship at the Syrian port of Tartus, also consisted of Soviet-made T-62 tanks. The tanks have less range and firepower than the more modern T-72, which Syrian forces also use and which the Iraqi army has. A dozen tanks and seven armored antiaircraft vehicles were visible on the docks. The ship's crew said 145 tanks remained in the belly of the ship. Syria has promised to send 300.
Saudi Lt. Gen. Khalid bin Sultan, who commands all Arab forces in the multinational buildup, greeted Syrian Maj. Gen. Ali Habib and his troops at the port. Khalid, who is a nephew of King Fahd, called the Syrians' arrival "a great contribution . . . from a dear brother country" that was coming to "solve the problems of the gulf."
"It is really a pleasure to have a Syrian armored division here. That makes me happy as a commander," Khalid said. He called today's arrivals the first "samples" of the division, which he said he hoped would be here fully "very quickly . . . in a few weeks."
Khalid, who arrived in a powder-blue Cadillac, gave the Syrians a quick inspection on the dock. The tank crews stood at attention in front of their T-62s, each of which bore a black stencil of Syrian President Hafez Assad's face on the front.
Saudi officials were eager for reporters to view the Syrian troops, who boarded their ship at the Syrian port of Tartus, in order to counter recent indications that Assad was having second thoughts about supporting the largely Saudi-financed and U.S.-led military buildup here.
Syria already had sent 3,000 troops to Saudi Arabia and 1,000 more to the nearby United Arab Emirates. But it had been dragging its feet on shipping the full armored division amid signs of popular discontent at home over Assad's decision to join the anti-Iraq coalition.
Many Syrians are ill at ease about allying themselves with Americans, whom they have long criticized for backing Israel. In addition, while many Syrians dislike Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, they do not want to see fellow Arabs killed in Iraq.
Assad's delay in sending the additional troops had annoyed the Saudi government, which had given Syria $500 million even before its first soldiers arrived, a Saudi official said. In addition, the Saudis have agreed to give Syria another $500 million in development aid and have promised to resume annual economic subsidies that had been cut off, he said.
Khalid said Syrian troops here "will be under Saudi Arabian command. But they will have always a direct line with their president."
Syrian officers declined to answer questions. One officer, asked whether his troops had come from Damascus or Lebanon, where Syrian has some 40,000 troops stationed, replied: "As you like."