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Syria Tries to Tackle Foreign Fighters

May 30, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) _ Syria has been trying to show it is tackling the problem of foreign fighters crossing into Iraq, and a state-run newspaper suggested Monday that authorities require visas of some Arab nationals.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, acknowledged Sunday they were questioning 30 of its nationals sent home by Damascus as suspected holy warriors heading to Iraq.

The United States and Iraq have, for months, singled out Syria for allowing fighters to cross into its eastern neighbor to carry out attacks.

Syria, in turn, has repeatedly said it is doing all it can to stop would-be insurgents from slipping across the 380-mile-long border _ most of it desert.

Washington and Baghdad intensified their criticism of Syria after insurgents stepped up their attacks, killing more than 700 people since the April 28 swearing-in of the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

Much of the criticism of Syria appears to be political. The foreign fighters issue has been a favorite Washington pressure point, even though U.S. military and intelligence officials in Iraq have long played down Syria’s role. The insurgency, they have said, is overwhelmingly Iraqi. The foreign infiltrators have their choice of Iraq’s six international borders, not just the frontier with Syria.

Military analysts say there are several U.S. incentives for blaming Syria. Depicting Iraq as a haven for foreign terrorists validates President Bush’s claims that Iraq is the center of the global war on terrorism. And branding the insurgency as foreign-inspired hides the fact that many Iraqis actively oppose the U.S.-led invasion.

Even so, Syria appears to be trying to meet U.S. demands by publicizing its actions against would-be border-crossers. Syria said it detained hundreds of foreigners trying to infiltrate Iraq.

Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Fayssal Mekdad, said Thursday that more than 1,200 people were arrested in recent weeks for trying to cross into Iraq. Many were sent back to their home countries, including Saudi Arabia, because of suspicions they were trying to join the insurgency.

``Syria has never been friendly to such elements, who are declared enemies of Syria as well,″ Mekdad said.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia said Syria handed over more than 30 of its citizens who were trying to enter Iraqi to support the insurgency.

``The move underlines Syria’s cooperation with the United States in controlling the borders with Iraq,″ Syrian political analyst Ayman Abdul Nour said.

But it was unclear whether all the deported Saudis were intent on joining the insurgents.

``You can’t take for granted that everyone arrested is connected to terrorism,″ said Brig. Mansour al-Turki, Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry spokesman. ``Some of them are connected with other crimes or with outstanding court summonses.″

The circumstances of their arrests in Syria were not clear. Al-Turki did not have exact figures on how many Saudis were sent back.

``Handing over infiltrators to their countries of origin shows that Syria is very serious in controlling its borders with Iraq,″ said Marwan Qabalan, a professor at Damascus’ Center for Strategic Studies.

The head of Syria’s state-run television on Monday urged the government to impose entry visa requirements to safeguard Syrian security.

Syria does not require entry visas for citizens of Arab countries, making it an attractive holiday destination and an easier route for Arab foreign fighters to get close to the Iraqi border.

``Allowing all Arabs to enter Syrian territories without visas would ... attract fugitives and suspects to Syria,″ Diana Jabbour wrote in an editorial published in the state-run newspaper Al-Thawra.

Jabbour suggested visas only be waived for citizens of countries that do not require visas for Syrians.

Meanwhile, security officials at Damascus’ international airport, the nation’s main port of entry, said Monday they are scrutinizing incoming passengers.

Al-Jaafari, Iraq’s prime minister, said earlier this month he will soon visit Syria to demand a crackdown against foreign insurgents crossing into the country. No date has been set for the visit.

The United States and Iraq also accuse Syria of harboring fugitives from the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein.

In February, Syria’s handed over Saddam’s half brother, Sabawi Ibrahim, a wanted leader of Iraq’s Sunni-based insurgency. Ibrahim’s transfer to Iraq came after Syria was subjected to international pressure following the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

A U.S. military official suggested earlier this month that top lieutenants of al-Qaida in Iraq met in Syria last month to plot suicide bombings.

Syria provided the United States with intelligence on al-Qaida after the Sept. 11 attacks. But Bush approved congressional sanctions against Damascus a year ago, alleging that Syria was supporting terrorism and undermining U.S. efforts in Iraq.

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