As rear base for the Baath insurgency and al Qaeda offensive in Iraq, Syria has been a thorn in the side of US forces in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003. But the latest US intelligence update put before President George W. Bush reveals that Iran too is actively backing Abu Musab al Zarqawi‘s al Qaeda outfit with extensive logistical support that brings him a steady supply of ammo, medical care, weapons, funds and medical care for wounded terrorists.
Tehran and Damascus have in fact organized a division of labor as Zarqawi’s key helpmeets.
Iran’s 10,000 undercover agents and subversives in Iraq provide Zarqawi’s suicide bombers and armed gangs with a broad logistical net, while Syria feeds in a steady supply of fighting manpower. Some of the terrorists are first trained in Iran and flown to Damascus before being pumped into Iraq.
Tehran and Damascus’ rationale for nurturing al Qaeda’s Iraq branch is analyzed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources:
1. They believe that the more intense and savage the violent onslaught directed against them, the sooner US forces will quit Iraq. Both interpret certain recent American military movements in Iraq as indicating that Washington is moving rapidly towards a timetable for pulling its army out of the embattled country.
2. The war Zarqawi is waging on the Shiites of Iraq, against which US forces play no part and which the Baghdad government is helpless to fend off, is beginning to reorient Iraqi Shiite political and religious leaders in Iraq towards Tehran as their only source of salvation. This tendency the Iranians are keen to encourage by keeping Zarqawi’s terrorists stoked up.
3. Tehran and Damascus both hope to use Iraqi Shiites’ growing dependence on Iran as a lever to hold down Shiite groups hostile to their interests. Iran wants to prevent these groups interfering with its plans for Iraq; Syria needs to hold off Iraqi Shiite opponents from curtailing the influence it wields among their Lebanese coreligionists.
Iran even provides holidays for Zarqawi’s men
Our intelligence experts note that just as Iran maintains a broad intelligence infrastructure in Iraq, so too does Syria – by means of a third party, the Lebanese Hizballah. This violent Shiite group’s security and terror network was laid by its infamous veteran mastermind Imad Mughniyeh in the autumn of 2003, during his covert six-month stay in central and southern Iraq.
The US intelligence report lists the resources Iran has made available to Zarqawi:
Training bases for terrorists with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards corps and its al Quds Battalions
Specialized tools of war designed for combat against the American and British armies – especially mechanisms for detonating explosive devices and tactics against American commando units, armor and helicopter gunships
A steady supply of ordnance and explosive materials of all types.
A multi-branched smuggling network crisscrossing Iraq which gives Zarqawi the freedom to move fighting units and weapons into new arenas at will. This collaboration, for instance, enabled him to transfer terrorist units from their Anbar sanctuaries in Western Iraq to British-controlled Basra in the south. The men could move without being encumbered by weapons or explosives, which Iranian cells had ready for them to collect upon arrival in Basra.
Iranian agents are able to whisk al Qaeda’s wounded men across the border to Iran for medical treatment. In Iraqi hospitals, they would risk discovery. This ferry service handles hundreds of casualties. The men are returned to Iraq by the same route after they recover.
In the past three months, groups of Zarqawi’s combatants, veterans of major engagements against the US army, such as the big battles of al Qaim and Mosul, have been hosted in Iran for rest and refreshment. They are then given 10-day refresher courses in updated combat tactics and weaponry and sent back to Iraq.
Iran’s extensive support system is helping Zarqawi’s al Qaeda force evolve from scattered bands of terrorists into a regular army.
The Iranian and Hizballah networks in Iraq use their local connections to keep the al Qaeda force supplied with vehicles of all kinds including buses, motorbikes and boats as well as fuel, food and water. The US intelligence report submitted to President Bush notes that, thanks to this assistance, Zarqawi’s units are often better supplied in some areas than the Iraq army and police.
Tehran is also generous with cash. According to intelligence estimates, Zarqawi is the recipient of between 5 and 12 million dollars per month as funding for his operations, amounting to a war-chest of $60-100m a year. Al Qaeda has never been so lavishly funded since the 1990s before the cutoff of funds from Saudi Arabia and Gulf emirates.
Syria’s contribution to al Zarqawi’s operation is far more modest than Iran’s. It is chiefly important as the hub that brings together Muslim extremists from all over the world and as a corridor for their infiltration of Iraq. The most striking example this month was that of the first European woman suicide bomber, the Belgian Muriel Degauque, who blew herself up against an American patrol on Nov. 9. She reached Baghdad via Damascus whence she put in phone calls to her parents in Belgium.
The Syrians provide the Iraq volunteers with wayside lodging, false passports or other documents and the freedom to move around Syria until their departure. Hizballah agents operating in Iraq enjoy free passage to and from Syria. Furthermore, when al Qaeda units are hard pressed by US-Iraqi offensives near the Iraqi-Syrian border, they have the option of fleeing to Syria for refuge.
Osama bin Laden’s kith and kin held in Iranian jails
This intelligence report was compiled on the strength of a thorough six-month investigation by a special American intelligence team. This group sifted through all the data amassed on Zarqawi and his operations, ran a fresh analysis of the explosive devices employed against US forces in the last year and a took a second look at the information obtained from the interrogations of Zarqawi’s followers captured in that period in Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources reveal that the real crunch came from a former inquiry that was reopened and examined with fresh eyes. On August 9, 2004, the Iranian consul in the holy Shiite town of Karbala, Fereidoun Jahani, was kidnapped by a Sunni guerrilla group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq. At the time, the group consisted of former Baathists and criminals. Exchanged signals and questioning of prisoners revealed that in its bid for the consul’s release, Tehran did not bother with Shiite intermediaries in Karbala but went straight to Zarqawi. He was warned that if the consul was not set free without delay, Iranian assistance to his organization would be cut off.
The al Qaeda leader agreed to do what he could to free Jahani, but asked for an Iranian gesture as an incentive for the kidnappers to let go of their hostage.
Some brief bargaining through senior Iranian intelligence officers produced a most impressive concession for Zarqawi to put before the kidnappers.
Tehran offered to pay for the consul’s freedom with the release of one of Osama bin Laden’s sons from the central prison in the Iranian capital.
This finding led US intelligence to the discovery that several of bin Laden’s close kin are in Iranian custody and not just one of his sons as previously thought. Zarqawi explained to the Islamic Army of Iraq that it was in their power to obtain the release of one of bin Laden’s sons, a great honor for a Sunni group and one that would place al Qaeda in their debt. Negotiations went on through September until the 25th , when the young bin Laden was freed and transferred to one of the training camps that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards sets aside for Zarqawi.
On September 27, Jahani was released.
1.500 Syrian Muslim Brethren are fighting in Iraq
The American analysts conclude that this swap and the negotiations leading up to it would not have been possible without the existence of operational links between Tehran and Zarqawi.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources disclose here another unpublished episode which occurred this week. It too substantiates the three-way pact between Iran, Syria and the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda commanded by Zarqawi.
Syrian president Bashar Assad is in the process of negotiating an accommodation with Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood’s representatives at home and in European exile. He is using as his key go-between an Iraqi Sunni cleric called Haraz al-Dari, who is close to al Qaeda and Zarqawi. According to our sources, Iranian officials asked Zarqawi to make al-Dari available for a serious domestic peace effort to help Assad relieve some of the pressure applied to him at home and the Arab world in the fallout from the UN Hariri probe.
This incident further illustrates the three-way pact which works for all three parties – not just in Iraq, but to their mutual interest in other parts of the Middle East.
In this case, our sources learn, Dari decided to establish his credibility with the Syrian ruler at their first secret interview in Damascus with a grand gesture: he produced with a flourish a fully-named list of the 1,500 Muslim Brotherhood members fighting US forces in Iraq – some with the insurgent guerillas, others with al Qaeda.
This list could only have been obtained on the personal sayso of its Iraqi chief. When he put the precious list before Assad, the Iraqi cleric demanded a full amnesty for all Brotherhood activists, their release from jail and permission for them to return from exile. Assad grudgingly agreed to an amnesty in stages, in between which the organization’s activities and willingness to cooperate with the regime would be carefully monitored.
In token of his good will, the Syrian ruler there and then permitted six Brotherhood adherents to return home from exile and agreed to repatriate a group of 49 injured Brotherhood members to receive hospital care for the wounds they sustained in Iraq.
Negotiations are still going on.