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Syria's terror pipeline
Media General News Service


September 19, 2005

WASHINGTON - Syria's terrorist pipeline into Iraq is as wide open as it has ever been, with arms, suicide bombers and fighters from all over the radical Arab world pouring across the border.

Word of that comes from the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who must deal with the consequences every day of deadly bombings.

The administration is reaching the end of its rope with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. With the White House privately discussing chapter two of regime change, Khalilzad publicly warned, "Our patience is running out with Syria."

He said it had reached the point where young Sunni Muslim men from Yemen, Saudia Arabia and North Africa without a return ticket are flying into Syria, and then being moved to training camps before crossing the border to kill Iraqis.

Said Our Man in Baghdad: "They need to decide. Are they going to be with a successful Iraq? Or are they going to be an obstacle to the success of Iraq?"

Before the week was out, he had his answer - the bloodiest single day of insurgent suicide bombings since the invasion, almost all directed at Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim population by the radical Sunni al Qaeda organization.

Yet, the new president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, had an entirely different, almost opposite perspective on the Syrians.

Assad, he told Washington Post reporters and columnists, is a friend of the Iraqi people. He seemed to deny that Syria was giving sanctuary to al Qaeda or other terrorists, despite the preponderance of evidence that it is very blatantly doing just that.

Talabani is Kurdish and said he received help from Assad's father during Talabani's long struggle for survival against Saddam Hussein, the jailed former dictator of Iraq. His judgment clearly is still colored by that experience.

Now, there is evidence that he is allowing Hezbollah - the armed Syrian-backed Shiite Muslim faction which has roots in both Iran and southern Lebanon - to begin spreading into Iraq.

Talabani told the Post it was only a small group that is allied with the Lebanese Hezbollah, and there would be no militia training camp in Iraq.

Nonetheless, Hezbollah has been labeled a terrorist organization by the State Department.

The other top elected leader in Iraq, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, visited one of the nation's top concentrations of Iraqi exiles in Dearborn, Mich., last week. Mainly Shiites, they were instrumental in convincing top U.S. defense officials that Americans would be well-received in Iraq and the occupation would be smooth.

Al-Jaafari, who was elected as the head of Iraq's top Shiite parties, which has strong ties to Iran, recently visited Tehran and won a $1 billion aid pledge from the Iranian government.

Both al-Jaafari and Talabani spoke of Iran in friendly terms. If it is part of an "axis of evil," the term President Bush has applied to Iran and has never taken back, no one has told the new government of Iraq.

Even as the Iraqi leaders sweet talk their neighbors, the United States is moving more aggressively to turn up the heat on them.

For Assad's government, dark days may be ahead, including rumors of a possible coup. War crimes trials could face at least one spy in the still-unsolved murder of Lebanon's popular leader, Rafiq Hariri. Arrests have already been made in Lebanon of top security officers with heavy Syrian connections, and investigators may be close to prying loose the name of their Syrian paymaster.

As for Iran, U.S. efforts to prove an attempt to build a bomb are escalating. A computerized graphic presentation has been shown to selected government representatives on Iran's nuclear breakout. It is said to be devastating.

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the United States sent its most credible leaders - including then Secretary of State Colin Powell - before the United Nations to make the case than Iraq had a capability to develop weapons of mass destruction. That botched effort hangs over this case against Iran now like an ugly cloud on U.S. credibility.

In addition, the idea of a U.S. policy of regime change against either Syria or Iran at this moment has two other problems.

One is the condition of U.S. armed forces, who are spread thin and exhausted by a long and debilitating struggle in Aghanistan and Iraq.

The other is a new reality. The leadership of the newly elected government of the country we just saved not only doesn't want regime change in its neighboring states but seems to desire a cozier relationship with them even as evidence of their menace accumulates.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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