U.S. concentrating forces near Syrian border

Thursday, April 17, 2003

The United States has bolstered its military presence near the Iraqi- Syrian border.

U.S. officials said Central Command has ordered a buildup of assets in western Iraq. They said the buildup is centered at Al Rutba and includes M1A1 main battle tanks, AH-64A attack helicopters and A-10 ground-support fighter-jets.

The U.S. move aims to prevent the escape of Iraqi leaders and nonconventional military assets to Syria. They said U.S. forces will also ensure that Arab foreign volunteers based in Syria will be captured as soon as they enter Iraq.

Officials have assured Syria that the military buildup is not meant against the regime of President Bashar Assad. But Coalition forces have already attacked Iraqi targets within 10 kilometers of the Syrian border.

Officials said Syria has been harboring hundreds of regime leaders and insurgents connected to Saddam. One of them, they said, is Farouq Hijazi, an Iraqi intelligence agent and said to have led a plot to kill the father of President George Bush, who was also president, after the 1991 Gulf war.

Officials said the U.S. deployment near the Syrian border has been enhanced by cooperation from Iraqi tribes. They said U.S. special operations units are now located along such key routes as Highway 10, Highway 11 as well as around the northwestern town of Al Qaim. On Tuesday, an Iraqi army unit located near Al Qaim and said to have contained 16,000 troops formally surrendered to U.S. forces.

"We have forces that are located in a number of places along the Syrian border with Iraq," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy operations chief at U.S. Central Command said on Tuesday. "We have vehicle checkpoints that are located along some of the key routes. In the northwest area, Al Qaim is an important area for us. We have a presence there, at that very important crossing point. We are located in other areas as well that I would not want to be too specific about at this point."

"We have concerns about Syria," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said. "We have let Syria know of our concerns. But there is no list, there is no war plan right now to go attack someone else, either for the purpose of overthrowing their leadership or for the purpose of imposing democratic values."

Earlier, Powell raised the prospect that the United States would impose sanctions on Syria for its help to the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

So far, the United States has shut down the Iraqi-Syrian oil pipeline, which produced revenues of about $1.2 billion a year for the Assad regime.

Since 2000, the pipeline had brought up to 250,000 barrels of Iraqi oil per day to Syria, which were then sold abroad.

"We have been told that they have shut off a pipeline," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said. "Whether it's the only one, and whether that has completely stopped the flow of oil between Iraq and Syria, I cannot tell you. We do not have perfect knowledge. We do know that they were instructed to shut it down, and they have told us that they have."

But Rumsfeld refused to discuss details of any plans to pressure Syria to surrender Iraqi weapons of mass destruction scientists. He said such decisions would be discussed by President George Bush and Powell.

"I don't have anything else to add on that," the defense secretary said. "The president's spoken on it. Secretary Powell has spoken on it. I'll leave that to them."

In an unrelated development, the United States has begun to withdraw more than 1,000 troops from Turkey. The Turkish military General Staff said in a statement on Tuesday that 1,166 U.S. soldiers would be flown out of the Incerlik air force base in southern Turkey by Wednesday.

The U.S. soldiers were part of a support effort for coalition air attacks on neighboring Iraq. They also helped establish supply routes to northern Iraq.

The Turkish statement said U.S. military equipment and supplies will be shipped out of the Turkish port of Iskenderun between April 15-23. U.S. officials said the no-fly zone in northern Iraq has also been discontinued. They said up to 50 U.S. combat jets deployed at Turkey's Incerlik air base have been redeployed.

"We have shut down Operation Northern Watch," Rumsfeld said. "The assets that were there for that purpose have been redeployed. We have not made final decisions with respect to the footprint of the United States in that part of the world, and won't for some months."

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