Syria begins deporting Arab volunteers for Saddam

Monday, April 28, 2003

NICOSIA Syria has begun to expel Arab volunteers who fought for the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Arab diplomatic sources and U.S. officials said Syrian security authorities have been deporting a range of Arab nationals who arrived in Syria from Iraq.

About 5,000 volunteers were said to have fought for the Saddam regime, most of them arriving through Syria, Middle East Newsline reported.

President Bashar Assad ordered the expulsion of Arab volunteers amid heavy U.S. pressure over the last week, the sources said. They said Egyptian nationals were targeted in the first stage of the deportations.

The United States has accused Syria of harboring hundreds of members of the Saddam regime. Officials said thousands of Syrian volunteers who fought for Saddam have been captured by coalition forces. At the same time, they said, Syria has also captured an unspecified number of Saddam's aides and closed the border with Iraq.

"We have acquired, scooped up, have custody of a large number of people, Iraqi people, even some non-Iraqis," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Friday. "We've got a number of Syrians and other nationals that were in there doing things they shouldn't have been doing. The number is somewhere between 7,000, 7,500, I'm going to guess. They're in various locations. I think we're probably down to one or two enemy prisoner of war camps."

Sen. Bob Graham, former chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, said the United States does not have evidence that Syria had intended to provide safe haven to senior officials in the Saddam regime.

Graham told the Council on Foreign Relations on Thurday that Syria has arrested several of the highest-ranked Iraqi officials. He said one of those arrested would be announced.

Graham also said Syria has allowed Hizbullah to train in both Syria and southern Lebanon. He said a significant number of Hizbullah operatives are in the United States "awaiting instruction to act" and called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to end Hizbullah operations in Syria and Lebanon.

"The training of terrorists, the operation of a global terrorist network cannot be part of any legitimate political or social organization," Graham said. "Nor can we have a constructive relationship with a country that provides sanctuary to these terrorist organizations and their training camps. If Syrian President Bashar Assad fails to rein in the group, Washington should take action."

That message was relayed directly to Assad by Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and the ranking member of the House International Relations Committee. Lantos warned Assad to end Hizbullah's presence and remove Syrian troops from Lebanon.

"We find that there should not be headquarters of terrorist organizations in Damascus," Lantos said after his meeting with Assad on Saturday. "These should be closed. Secondly, the ongoing support and supply of Hizbullah military activities through the airport in Damascus must end."

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