In his former life as head of Iraqi intelligence, Saddam’s half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim, cultivated personal ties with many of his foreign colleagues. Since he has gone underground, this net has come in useful for helping him promote his political and financial business as well as helping Saddam to stay a step ahead of his pursuers.
One of his special associates, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence experts in the Middle East and Gulf, was a fellow Arab top spook, Egyptian intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman. Our sources reveal that Suleiman was a live wire in Iraq’s clandestine oil exporting trade – with personal permission from his boss, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. In fact this secret oil route was used as a backdoor channel for communications between the Iraqi and Egyptian presidents – until two years before America invaded Iraq, when the Egyptians abruptly severed the link with Baghdad.
In his scramble to replace the Egyptian go-between for Iraq’s illicit oil trade, Barzan connected with Bashar Assad in March 2000, shortly before he succeeded his father, Hafez Assad, as president of Syria. Their matchmaker was the force behind Syria’s intelligence services, General Ali Aslan.
Barzan and Bashar hit it off immediately. The understanding they reached quickly transformed Syria into the central transit route for Iraqi oil smuggled out to international markets and Iraqi imports, including the weapons forbidden under UN sanctions.
Syria was in clover, pulling in between $1 billion and $1.2 billion a year. This revenue was over and above the expanding volume of Iraq’s business with outside trading partners routed through Syrian banks.
In developing the Syrian connection, Saddam’s half-brother had an additional ulterior motive in mind. He had prudently decided to set up a second safety net that would keep Saddam safe in case of danger. Before the war, the Americans did not suspect Syria had been made into a “second Geneva” for the top level of the Baath regime. The secretive nature of Syrian society and Barzan’s tactic of distributing bolt holes for Iraqi bigwigs around Syrian towns – Damascus, Aleppo in the north and Latakia along the Mediterranean coast – masked the clandestine Iraqi hideaways going up around the country.
DEBKAfile and DEBKA-Net-Weekly were the first media outlets to disclose these secret shelters in the first week of the US push into Iraq. As the Iraqi armed forces caved in and Baghdad fell to American forces, top Iraqi political leaders, military officers and WMD scientists fled the country and leapt to safety straight into the prepared refuges in Syria.
Barzan had prepared much more than shelters for fugitive leaders. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and military sources have discovered that he created a second secret chain of Iraqi logistical-intelligence bases across the country, outfitted with the latest communications, surveillance and electronic warfare gadgetry. Not all the bases are known to the Syrian hosts.
These facilities are now being pressed into service – first, to provide logistical support for the operation to rescue Saddam from his American pursuers in the Sunni Arab Iron Triangle of central Iraq; second as logistical and intelligence support centers for the guerrillas fighting US forces around the country; third, to provide funds, intelligence and other sustenance to the fugitive president and his following of former soldiers and Baathist militiamen.
60,000 armed men protect Saddam
The guerrilla attacks on American troops are a well-organized military operation which, despite US insistence that only small groups of guerrilla fighters are involved, are believed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts to be the work of a large force. Around 60,000 armed men are posted around the Arab Sunni Iron Triangle north of Baghdad to form a protective buffer around Saddam and Barzan. To capture them and overwhelm this force, their lifeline to support bases and funding sources in Syria must first be severed.
It does not sound too hard. What is needed basically is for Assad to pull the rug from under those bases and shelters. If Washington leaned on the Syrian ruler hard enough, he ought to be persuaded to send the fugitive Iraqis packing aboard eastbound buses heading straight into the waiting arms of American soldiers at the Iraqi border. No more than a few hundred senior Iraqi officials remain in Syria, down from the several thousand there in May and June.
That’s the theory. In practice, Assad has pulled the wool over American eyes too many times for him to inspire confidence now. He has already been caught out reneging on a solemn vow to Washington to shut down the Damascus centers of Palestinian terrorist organizations, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
Those command centers are still open for business, as are the logistical-intelligence command posts serving Saddam Hussein and radical Muslim groups linked to al Qaeda.
Still, the Syrian president has assured Washington that “…aside from Iraqi bases we don’t know about, all Iraqi centers have closed down or will do so soon.”
The double game Assad plays with the Americans nourishes hope eternal in Washington that he will end up informing on his Iraqi allies, providing some hint that will lead them to Saddam’s lair. That is why no direct US action has been taken against Damascus. The Syrian president has even been offered an incentive to play ball. In the last two weeks, US forces have opened northern Iraqi- borders to trade with Syria for the first time since the war and even activated the Iraqi-Syrian railroad.
But the Syrian role with regard to Iraq remains suspect ever since the war, when they were caught pumping thousands of Palestinian and Hizballah fighters from Lebanon and Syrian Islamic seminaries into Iraq to fight against coalition forces. This smuggling operation was funded by Barzan and connived at by Syrian military intelligence and Assad in person.
Assad also turned a blind eye in late May and early June, when groups of Syrian-Iraqi nomadic Arab tribesmen who roam the border region joined the war against the American presence in Iraq, dramatically increasing the number and scope of suicide attacks against Americans and US casualties.
With Syria’s ambiguous shadow lurking in the background, American tasks in Iraq are proliferating. Their goals now are to catch Saddam Hussein, crush diehard resistance in the Iron Triangle of central Iraq, disable Iraqi logistical-intelligence bases in Syria and break up the Saddam-Barzan-Assam partnership.