“Adams once said: facts are stubborn.” This quote came from Senator Edward Kennedy of the US Senate Armed Forces Committee when he questioned the Iraqi Survey Group’s leader Charles Duelfer on October 6 on the massive report he had just presented to the committee. He was referring to the conclusion reached by the ISG that in the moment of time before the US-led invasion, no weapons of mass destruction stockpiles were present in Iraq. Duelfer concealed his indignation with difficulty when the senator termed “speculative” his judgment that Saddam Hussein intended restarting his WMD programs when UN sanctions were lifted. That is not speculation, the ISG leader protested, but analysis based on exhaustive work on the ground by many people, some of whom paid with their lives.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly does not propose to join the argument between Kennedy and Duelfer, or step into the political debate between Republicans and Democrat on the rights and wrongs of the Iraq War. Both claim that the new report supports their respective positions. The John Kerry camp argues that it demolishes the claims made by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney of WMD in Iraq prior to the war. The Republicans pounce on Duelfer’s conclusion that Saddam Hussein was determined to develop weapons of mass destruction and was therefore a threat.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources have checked and rechecked the data published on these pages and finds it as solid – or as “stubborn” – as ever. Therefore, they reiterate that the reason the ISG found no evidence of WMD stockpiles in Iraq in 2003 was that most of Saddam’s banned materials, equipment and vehicles were shipped by convoy to Syria between January 10 and March 10, 2003.
The transfer was supervised by Saddam’s son Uday at the Iraqi end.
The former Syrian defense minister’s son Fares Tlas took charge of the convoys as they crossed the border.
As we reported at the time, Tlas directed most of the trucks to the El Jazeera desert in northern Syria for interment at secret sites in the al Jazeera-Qaratshuk region enclosed by the Iraqi-Syrian-Turkish border triangle southeast of Syrian al-Qamishli. Smaller quantities were buried somewhere in the vast area between the Syrian towns of Az Zawr and Al Qamishli. A third small batch was concealed somewhere in the Lebanese Beqaa Valley.
Our most reliable intelligence sources, some of whom took part in working sessions with Duelfer’s predecessor as ICG leader, David Kay, in Washington, Iraq, and other places, report that he was given not only the dates of the transfer, but descriptions of the vehicles in the convoy. One senior source claimed that Dr Kay knew exactly what was in the tankers that crossed from Iraq into Syria on those dates because after the war he had access to maps and coordinates marked with the hiding places, satellite photos of the convoys and information on their contents as recorded on the instruments of spy planes.
On the basis of all this information, Dr. Kay is known to have conferred with military and intelligence heads in various Middle East countries. Our sources have no information on whether Dr.Duelfer had access to the same data as Dr. Kay. All they know is that every inquiry conducted up until today stops at the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Duelfer could not say “definitively” whether Iraq had transferred WMD out of the country before the 2003 war. Kay also left the question open. At the time, he said there was no way of settling the question without cooperation from Syria.
Another question wide open is why Washington has never taken action to insert Iraqi Survey Team experts or US special forces into northern Syria to inspect the sites marked as WMD hiding places. Possible reasons are reluctance to go to war with another Arab state after Iraq, fear of heavy US casualties or even a suspicion that banned materials may have decayed too far for identification.
That question ties in with another which is far less controversial.
Since well before March 2003, Syria has been home to the Iraq Baath’s rear logistic and financial infrastructure, hosting also al Qaeda and al Qaeda bases for dispatching fighters, weapons and explosives committed to fight and blow up Americans in Iraq. Yet never was any US military or even covert action ordered on Syrian soil, but for an isolated incident when a busload of Hizballah terrorists was bombed.
The only new piece of information reaching us on this subject is that Syrian military intelligence officers in Lebanon have begun liquidating agents who operated the secret corridor of anti-US fighting men and arms into Iraq. Syrian military intelligence runs this corridor. At some time it was a two-lane channel, also carrying senior Iraqi Baath officials back and forth between Iraq and Syria.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, one of the agents given the chop most recently was Ismail Khatib, from Lebanese Majdal Anjar, an important border town under Syrian army control. He was singled out last month as one of the members of an al Qaeda Palestinian ring rounded up by the Lebanese authorities for plotting a series of bomb blasts against foreign embassies in Beirut. He was later reported to have died of a heart attack in a Beirut hospital on September 27 or 28.
His family who collected the body claimed he died of torture, sparking riots in his home town.
The information our sources have garnered on this episode are as follows.
Ismail Khatib did not belong to the al Qaeda Palestinian ring, but to a salfit sect headed by the Lebanese Sheikh Ibrahim Amema. Before the war, the sect members were deployed in Fallujah and Baghdad as the hub through which Syrian military intelligence activated its smuggling networks between Syria and Iraq. Hatim was one of the heads of the network. He recently returned home from Iraq to take up a new post as recruiter of fighting strength for the anti-American insurgency in Iraq.
His fellow townsmen in Majdal Anjar were incensed over his death, setting up roadblocks on the Beirut-Damascus highway, burning the local police station and threatening to seal the Lebanese-Syrian border. They carried placards bitterly accusing the Syrians of exploiting the town for the Iraq war and then murdering their helpers for the sake of a deal with the Americans.
It is clear to them that Syria is covering its tracks to conceal the volume of its clandestine cross-border trade with the Saddam regime, including very possibly the convoys carrying Saddam Hussein’s vanished weapons of mass destruction.