WASHINGTON—U.S. intelligence has no evidence that terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi visited Syria in recent months to plan bombings in Iraq, and experts don't believe the widely publicized meeting ever happened, according to U.S. officials.
Two weeks ago, a top U.S. military official in Baghdad, Iraq, told reporters that Zarqawi had traveled to Syria in April and met with leaders of the Iraqi insurgency to plan the recent wave of bombings against American troops and the Iraqi government. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In the following days, top Bush administration and Iraqi officials increased their threats against Syria.
The reassessment comes amid a debate within the U.S. intelligence community over how to fight the insurgency and over Syria's role in it, the officials said.
Some analysts argue that, while Damascus has been unhelpful in stopping terrorists crossing its border, its importance is being exaggerated and that the key to defeating the insurgency is in Iraq, not in Syria or Iran.
Three officials who said that the reports of Zarqawi's travels were apparently bogus spoke on condition of anonymity because intelligence matters are classified and because discussing the mistaken report could embarrass the White House and trigger retaliation against them.
The allegation by the U.S. military official in Baghdad that Zarqawi and his lieutenants met in Syria suggests that, despite the controversy over the Bush administration's use of flimsy and bogus intelligence to make its case for war in Iraq, some officials are still quick to embrace dubious intelligence when it supports the administration's case—this time against Damascus.
One of the U.S. officials said the initial report was based on a single human source, who has since changed his story significantly. Another official said the source and his information were quickly dismissed as unreliable by intelligence officials but caught the attention of some political appointees.
These officials and two others said the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies were mystified by the reports of Zarqawi's visit because they had no such information.
"We are not aware of any information that suggests that Zarqawi met in Syria with his lieutenants in April," a defense official said. "However, it doesn't preclude his having met with them most likely in al Anbar," a largely Sunni Muslim province in western Iraq.
The Jordanian-born Zarqawi leads the al-Qaida in Iraq group, which has claimed responsibility for some of the country's deadliest bombings.
U.S. military officials, confirming postings on a Web site used by Zarqawi's group, believe that he was wounded recently in a firefight in Ramadi, west of Baghdad.
Syria has long supported Palestinian terror groups that attack Israel, and Syrian officials have said they're unable to police the long border with Iraq. France and the United States sponsored a U.N. Security Council resolution that forced Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon following the February assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld issued a thinly veiled warning Wednesday to Damascus against providing harbor to anyone allied with Osama bin Laden's network.
"Any country that decides it wants to provide medical assistance or haven to a leading terrorist, al-Qaida terrorist, is obviously associating themselves with al-Qaida and contributing to a great many Iraqis being killed, as well as coalition forces in Iraq. And that is something that people would want to take note of," Rumsfeld said.
But there are sharp differences within the U.S. government over the roles Syria and Iran are playing in the insurgency, which has claimed the lives of more than 800 Iraqis and 80 U.S. troops since Iraq's Shiite-led government was named April 28.
A U.S. official said experts at the Pentagon believe "the keys to the insurgency are external to Iraq" and that closing the Syrian and Iranian borders to the transit of Islamic extremists, weapons and cash would cripple the guerrillas.
But officials at other agencies see the insurgency—the bulk of which is being waged by former members of Saddam Hussein's regime and Sunnis opposed to the Shiite-led government and its U.S. allies—as "an internal Iraqi phenomenon," he said.
Despite the charges that Syria is an important supporter of the insurgency, the U.S. Army has deployed only 400 U.S. soldiers to patrol a 10,000 square-mile area in northwest Iraq abutting Syria and Turkey, Knight Ridder reported this week.
While there's no doubt that insurgents, weapons and cash have crossed into Iraq via Syria, current and former officials say Syria's efforts to stop them too often have been dismissed.
Syria has been "the route of choice" for foreign jihadists trying to enter Iraq, but "putting too much focus on Syria could divert attention away from the much bigger problem: our inability, so far, to deal effectively with the insurgency's center of gravity inside Iraq," said Wayne White, a veteran Middle East intelligence analyst who recently left the State Department.
One official said many fanatics coming to Iraq to wage holy war cross from Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, which also borders Iraq.
Comparing Syria's efforts with Saudi Arabia's, he said: "I'm not sure they're doing any worse."
(John Walcott contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.