Friday, February 10, 2006

US Colonel Sees Cut In Fighters Coming To Iraq From Syria

By Ferry Biedermann, Iraq-Syria Border
London Financial Times
February 9, 2006

Alleged infiltration of foreign militants into Iraq through Syria appears to have dramatically slowed down, according to US military officers on the Iraqi-Syrian border.

In spite of continued allegations from Washington officials that Damascus is continuing to support the infiltration of jihadis into Iraq, the American commander in the northern border region says that in more than 130 detentions of smugglers by his troops along the border in the past nine months, "we did not find one foreign fighter".

Colonel Greg Reilly of the 3rd squadron of the 3rd Armoured Cavalry, based at Sinjar some 50km inside Iraq, also discounted the tales of massive financial or logistical support coming across the border. "If there was a strong relationship, we'd have found money caches or they would have tried to divert us from the border. That has not happened." His troops control the northern 300km of the border.

Col. Reilly said he could not speak of the whole around 600km Iraqi-Syrian border. But in 2004 he served along the southern part of it, in the unruly al-Anbar province where the cities Ramadi and Fallujah are located. He's now liaising with the troops who are responsible for that part of the frontier and he said that it seems "to be going the right way" in the south as well.

His superior, Col. H.R. McMaster, said he last caught a limited number of foreign fighters during last September's major operation against insurgents in Tel Afar. But he said he suspected Iraqi militants might be receiving training inside Syria, possibly without the knowledge of the Syrian government.

This is a far cry from Iraqi and US allegations of significant support for the militants coming from Syria. President George W. Bush said on January 11 that there were "suiciders coming in from Syria into Iraq", referring to the US assertion that most of the suicide bombings in Iraq were carried out by foreigners.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, echoing Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, said also in January that Syria was "a transit point for foreign terrorists going into Iraq".

Foreign fighters did come across in large numbers in 2003. The border is also porous and smuggling, particularly of cigarettes, oil and sheep, is still going on, almost exclusively from Iraq to Syria, where prices are much higher.

Col. Reilly must be one of the few senior officers who are knowledgeable about the price of sheep in the two countries, Dollars 85 to Dollars 90 in Iraq against Dollars 250 in Syria. "I'm not saying we can seal the border hermetically when there is such an incentive."

But his troops and the Iraqis patrolling the border intercept a large slice of smuggled goods.

Rabiyah was once a centre for smuggling. The Americans dismantled several places where forgers produced false Iraqi passports, and at first every bus crossing the border from Syria used to contain two or three people carrying them.

Relations between the US and Syria have steadily deteriorated over the past two years amid concerns in Washington that Damascus was helping fuel the Iraqi insurgency. Senior Iraqi officials also say Syria provides a safe haven for insurgent leaders and have provided other Arab governments with files detailing alleged Syrian interference.

Syrian officials have said the border can never be completely controlled but that they have made efforts to step up surveillance. Analysts say co-operation has improved as Syria has sought to ease international pressure over its role in Lebanon, where it is also accused by the US and European governments of meddling in another country's internal affairs.

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