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U.S.: Washington Warns Iran, Syria Not To Interfere In Iraq, But Can The Charges Be Substantiated?

Recent days have seen a mounting drumbeat of charges from Baghdad and Washington that Iran and Syria are actively seeking to undermine the creation of a new post-Saddam Hussein order in Iraq. The charges have been dramatic, but also vague, leaving observers uncertain of the evidence behind them. The latest charge came yesterday, as U.S. President George W. Bush warned both Iran and Syria not to interfere in Iraq as the country prepares for its 30 January elections.

Prague, 16 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bush delivered his warning in Washington yesterday, but gave no specifics as to what motivated it or what actions he might take if it is ignored.

He said only that "we will make it clear to both Syria and Iran that...meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq is not in their interests."

But Bush's remarks seemed to build on a mounting wave of strong criticism of Tehran and Damascus coming from Iraqi interim government officials in recent days.

Interim Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan al-Khuza'i said in Baghdad yesterday that Iran is actively supporting insurgent groups inside Iraq. "We have discovered that the key to terrorism is in Iran,: he said. "This country, as I said previously, is the No. 1 enemy of Iraq."

The defense minister specifically accused Iran and Syria of backing insurgent groups led by loyalists of Saddam Hussein and Jordanian-born extremist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. "Iran is running a huge terrorism ring in Iraq," he said. "The Iranian intelligence, the Syrian intelligence, and the former Iraqi intelligence are cooperating with the group of al-Zarqawi."

The charges by al-Sha'lan came close on the heels of statements by other top Iraqi officials last week suggesting Damascus is allowing former Iraqi Ba'thists to coordinate insurgent activities in Iraq from Syria.

Iraqi interim President Ghazi al-Yawir accused Syria of offering a "safe haven" to former top Ba'athist officials who fled Iraq with state funds. Al-Yawir's national security adviser said that retaking Al-Fallujah had uncovered a money trail between the Ba'athist exiles and insurgents. He said, "It is very difficult to convince me that the Syrian government does not know about these activities."

Both Iran and Syria deny promoting instability in Iraq. They say they are trying to block any infiltration into Iraq by insurgents across their borders.

Analysts say U.S. and Iraqi officials appear determined to publicly charge Tehran and Damascus of meddling in Iraq. But the often vague nature of the charges leaves many observers questioning how well the accusations are substantiated and wondering why they are being aired now.

Turi Munthe of the Royal United Services Institute in London told RFE/RL that there is evidence that people and money are entering Iraq from Syria and Iran. But he said that in Syria's case, the activity does not appear to be state-supported.

"A kind of infiltration from Syria that we are getting is not at all state-run or state-backed. Syria has got large borders with Iraq which are quite difficult to patrol. And a lot of people seem to have been slipping in, and many Syrians have come through to fight against occupation forces in Iraq and have been welcomed into their fellow Sunni Arab insurgents' bosom. My sense is that, in fact, the numbers we are looking at are quite small, but yet they represent an event, and this is an event that Washington is clearly worried about," Munthe said.

In the case of Iran, however, Munthe said there does seem to be state involvement. "Going over to Iran, a very different thing is happening. There is a lot to suggest that there is sort of major government-linked interference in Iraq," he said. "Now, there has been a large number of reports. We have had them not only from Washington, we've had it from the president of Iraq, as well as King Abdullah of Jordan and many, many other people, who have said that enormous sums of money -- as well as up to 1 million Iranians -- have been sent over into the south to galvanize people for the election, to pose as Iraqis, to sign up so they can vote and get their people in."

Amid this week's flurry of charges from Washington and Baghdad, some analysts say it is up to Washington to present firm evidence to back its accusations against Syria and Iran before they will be widely accepted in the region.

Rime Allaf is a regional expert with the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London. She said that without concrete evidence, the accusations will be seen as an effort to deflect blame for Iraq's security problems from U.S. and Iraqi officials to outside forces.

She notes tensions over security problems are particularly high in the run-up to the election of Iraq's National Assembly on 30 January. "There's been a concerted effort to get the Syrians and the Iranians in the same boat as trying to destabilize the country or to get things their own way," Allaf said. "I think as time progresses, as we get closer to 30 January, this will probably increase, even though the Iraqi government is trying to get some of the attention away from the [difficulties around the] elections by starting the trials of some of Saddam's men next week."

The government of Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has vowed to hold the elections on schedule, despite uncertainties over how security will be assured in parts of Sunni central Iraq.

While U.S. and Iraqi charges over Syria and Iran have flared over the past year, Baghdad and its neighbors have made some efforts to ease tensions.

Damascus agreed with Baghdad in September to increase cooperation on patrolling the border to prevent movement of money and fighters across it. The agreement won praise from the Bush administration, even as it considers how to apply sanctions against Syria mandated by the U.S. Congress over charges that Damascus supports Mideast terrorist groups.

Iran and Iraq agreed at a meeting in Tehran earlier this month that they need to "enhance regional cooperation," but they did not specify steps to do so. The meeting, which included officials from six other regional states, saw several exchanges of blame between Iran and the U.S.-backed Iraqi interim government over who is responsible for the current violence in Iraq.