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Iraq smuggling strategic materials through Syria
Iraq is secretly shipping components for military systems and weapons of mass destruction through Syria to the regime of President Saddam Hussein.
Western intelligence sources said Iraq is acquiring components for tanks, armored systems and anti-aircraft batteries as well as material for WMD through Syria. The sources said the smuggling began more than a year ago and has increased over the last few months.
The main Syrian port employed for the shipments is Tartous where the Iraqi smuggling route has led to a sharp increase in traffic.
The regime of President Bashar Assad has launched a project to expand the ports of Latakia and Tartous, and Japan has approved a $70 million loan for the project.
Meanwhile Syria, in what was described as a surprise move, has replaced its military chief of staff.
Syrian President Bashar Assad dismissed Gen. Ali Aslan, who has served since 1998 as the military's chief of staff. Assad replaced Aslan with his deputy, Gen. Hassan Turkamani.
U.S. officials said Assad appears to be ignorant of Syria's strategic weapons program, believed controlled by Aslan, Geostrategy-Direct reported in its Jan. 29 edition.
On Jan. 29, the London-based Al Hayat daily reported that the U.S. Sixth Fleet stopped two Syrian merchant ships in the Mediterranean over the last week. The daily said the ships were taken to Cyprus and searched for unspecified weapons and materials. Nothing was confiscated from the Syrian ships.
"This [Syria] has become the main route for Iraqi smuggling of weapons and WMD," a senior Western intelligence official said. "In this way, Syria has replaced such countries as Jordan and Turkey."
Aslan is expected to go into retirement. He is a member both of the Alawite sect and of the Kalibya tribe, to which the Assad family belongs. For years, Aslan was regarded as the most trustworthy commander of the military.
The chief of staff was given a reception to commemorate his departure. The London-based A-Sharq Al Awsat said the reception on Tuesday was attended by Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas. Tlas recently survived a Cabinet shakeup ordered by Assad.
The outgoing chief of staff was said to have urged a change in Syria's military doctrine away from the Soviet defensive model. Aslan urged his commanders to show greater initiative and tried to stop the deterioration of the military amid budget woes and a shortage of spare parts. On late Monday, Jan. 28, Saddam met his air force commanders. The official Iraqi news agency said Saddam discussed the improvement of the nation's air defense system.
The sources said the volume of smuggling through Syria to Iraq has expanded as relations have improved. Trade between the two countries resumed in 1997 and by last year the volume of commerce had reached $1 billion. The amount is expected to reach $2 billion in 2002.
Syrian exports to Iraq are reported at $500 million a year. The sources said Syria exports to Iraq its own produce as well as goods ordered by the regime in Baghdad. In return, Iraq pumps to Syria around 200,000 barrels of oil per day in violation of United Nations sanctions.
The unauthorized Iraqi oil exports to Syria were raised for the first time in the UN Security Council on Jan. 28. Syria, which joined the council earlier this month, has not yet formally responded.
Since 1995, Syrian authorities said, commerce at the Tartous port has increased by 47 percent in tonnage and 108 percent in income. In 2001, income produced by the port amounted to $19.2 million based on 5.7 million tons of imports.
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