WASHINGTON—The prospect of Syrian and Iranian interference with the war in Iraq has rung alarm bells within the Bush administration in recent days.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld disclosed Friday that military supplies, including night vision goggles, had been discovered flowing across the border from Syria into western Iraq.
"These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces," he said at a news briefing. "We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments."
He added: "We don't want neighboring countries or anyone else for that matter to be in there assisting the Iraqi forces."
The Syrian foreign ministry denied that it had sent military supplies to Iraq or permitted them to cross the border.
"What Donald Rumsfeld said about the transportation of equipment from Syria to Iraq is an attempt to cover up what his forces have been committing against civilians in Iraq," the foreign ministry said.
The military threat posed by the alleged covert Syrian meddling in the war could signal a willingness by Syrian President Bashir Assad to encourage Iraqi resistance while the war lasts and to foment discord later.
U.S. intelligence officials are not sure to what extent Syria may have provided help to Iraq. Some doubt it has been significant. The information made public by Rumsfeld Friday came to U.S. attention from Israeli intelligence sources, a senior U.S. intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The United States is also concerned that between 800 and 900 armed men of the Badr corps—Islamist opponents of Saddam Hussein—have crossed the border from Iran to the mountainous area east of Sulaimaniyah, in the Kurdish region of northeastern Iraq.
U.S. officials are worried that, while no friends of Saddam, this group of Badr corps members could interfere with coalition war aims or promote unrest in the politically volatile areas of northeastern Iraq. The group of Iraqi exiles has been trained and equipped by the Iranian government, which fought a war with Iraq in the 1980s but may fear a U.S.-dominated Iraq after the current war is over.
"We will hold the Iranian government responsible for their actions, and will view Badr corps activity inside Iraq as unhelpful," Rumsfeld said. "Armed Badr corps members found in Iraq will have to be treated as combatants."
With American and British forces strung out for 220 miles in central and southern Iraq, and with U.S. paratroopers clearing the way to open a second front in northern Iraq, "the last thing we need" is for Iraq's neighbors to interfere, said a senior Defense official, speaking Friday on condition of anonymity.
Ivan Oelrich, a military analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, said Friday that the possibility of Syrian interference seemed the more serious at this point.
"One of the key advantages that we have is night vision devices," he said from Washington. "A lot of our tactics are based on the fact that we have a lot more night vision ability than any foe."
He said the Syrians might have been selling goggles or other war materiel for profit.
"If they were trying to avoid detection and make a quick buck, now that we have caught them, it will come to an end," he said. "If, on the other hand, they were using this as a way to undermine the U.S. attack and cause greater casualties, then it has much greater long-term implications."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.