Monday, May 30, 2005

Newsday.com: Syria Tries to Tackle Foreign Fighters

Newsday.com: Syria Tries to Tackle Foreign Fighters:

"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. "

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