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2003-04-01 - 5:35 p.m.

:::More News on this Bloodbath War:::

Rescue effort for Bliss unit left 9 Marines dead, 8 missing

Diana Washington Valdez
El Paso Times
March 31, 2003

U.S. Marines were sent to rescue wounded members of the 507th Maintenance Company on March 23, the day the Fort Bliss unit was attacked in Iraq, but nine of the Marines who took part in the rescue effort were killed and eight others are missing, Pentagon officials said Sunday.

Meanwhile, efforts by the Red Cross to secure access to the American POWs have not succeeded, officials said Monday.

U.S. military officials also confirmed that the four bodies discovered a few days ago in shallow graves are of American troops, but have still not determined the branch of the military in which the troops served, much less their names.

"They have not been identified yet," Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said Sunday from Doha, Qatar.

Owens also said Iraqi paramilitary forces known as Fedayeen were involved in the attack against the 507th Maintenance Company that left two of the 507th soldiers dead, four wounded, five captured and eight missing.

Sunday is the first time U.S. military officials revealed that Marines conducted a search-and-rescue operation to recover the wounded Army soldiers. All but one of the missing Marines was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, from Camp Lejeune, N.C.

A U.S. Mortuary Affairs team was sent to investigate the site of the graves near Nasiriyah, which is in the general area where the attack occurred.

"The Iraqi paramilitary or irregular forces includes the hit squads and the Fedayeen that are loyal to Saddam Hussein," Owens said Sunday. "They are the ones that attacked the maintenance supply convoy." Coalition commanders said the Fedayeen were trying to cut the American supply lines reaching back to Kuwait.

Among the 507th's wounded are Spc. James Grubb of El Paso, and Cpl. Damien Luten of Indianapolis. Luten was shown in widely distributed photographs last week with a teddy bear tied to his stretcher as he was being taken to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C.

He told his mother, in a story published in the Indianapolis Star on Sunday, that a group of Marines saved him and some other members of the 507th. "A couple of guys got shot up pretty bad," he told her.

A memorial service was held Sunday near Checkpoint Charlie south of Najaf for the two members of the 507th who were killed when their convoy made a wrong turn and drove into an area controlled by the Saddam loyalists. Spc. Jamaal Addison, 22, of Atlanta, and Pfc. Howard Johnson, 20, of Mobile, Ala., were killed.

"One week ago, things went terribly wrong," said the chaplain, Capt. Scott Koeman. Consoling the troops, he said, "Death comes hand in hand with war."

Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, with the U.S. Central Command, said Fedayeen have changed in and out of uniform, used civilians, including children, as human shields, and were forcing Iraqi regular troops to fight on threats of death. U.S. troops who are moving toward Baghdad have run into strong resistance from these Iraqi paramilitary fighters.

Relatives of the Fort Bliss soldiers who are missing or are POWs said it's hard to deal with not knowing what has become of their loved ones.

"Because the Red Cross has not been able to get in there, we don't know how they're doing," said Claude Johnson, father of Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30, of El Paso, one of the POWs. "I know she's alive from the videotape and pictures that were shown, but I wish I knew more."

The International Committee for the Red Cross reported on its Web site Sunday that heavy bombing shook its offices in Baghdad. The Red Cross has been trying to gain access to the POWs since news of their capture aired last week.

The Iraqi government videotaped the 507th soldiers who were captured and also showed what were reported to be the bodies of U.S. soldiers. High-ranking U.S. military officials who viewed the tape said it was possible that the soldiers were executed after attempting to surrender.

Phyllis Hudman, mother-in-law of Spc. Joseph Hudson of Alamogordo, said the soldier's wife is in contact with the military daily, "but they don't have any new information for her."

"I'm sure it's the same with all the families," Hudman said. "Their hearts are breaking, just like ours."

Hudson, 23, of the 507th, was among the five Fort Bliss soldiers who were captured by the Iraqis on March 23. He was one of the soldiers who was interviewed and videotaped by the Iraqi government.

Alamogordo residents took part in a rally Sunday night to show support for Hudson and the rest of the troops in the war.

Ronald Voltz, a retired Navy veteran who organized the rally, said Alamogordo residents were asked to flash lights, wave U.S. flags, honk car horns or use other noisemakers. The city proclaimed Sunday as "Support our Troops/POW/MIA Day."

"We're doing this for the young man from Alamogordo who is being held as a POW in Iraq and for his family," Voltz said. "We have a lot of kids from all over the world in the war who are away from home."

Randy Kiehl of Comfort, Texas, father of Spc. James Kiehl, one of the 507th members who are missing, said he searches the Internet constantly and watches as much television coverage as possible for any information about his son or his unit.

Two Army officials visited his home Wednesday regarding his son, but "they did not have any more news other than what we already knew."

Randy Kiehl said there are 1,500 people in Comfort, Texas, "and I think I've heard from all of them. ... People are calling constantly to support us, and there are yellow ribbons everywhere."


A Gruesome Scene on Highway 9
10 Dead After Vehicle Shelled at Checkpoint

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 1, 2003; Page A01

NEAR KARBALA, Iraq, March 31 -- As an unidentified four-wheel-drive vehicle came barreling toward an intersection held by troops of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, Capt. Ronny Johnson grew increasingly alarmed. From his position at the intersection, he was heard radioing to one of his forward platoons of M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles to alert it to what he described as a potential threat.

"Fire a warning shot," he ordered as the vehicle kept coming. Then, with increasing urgency, he told the platoon to shoot a 7.62mm machine-gun round into its radiator. "Stop [messing] around!" Johnson yelled into the company radio network when he still saw no action being taken. Finally, he shouted at the top of his voice, "Stop him, Red 1, stop him!"

That order was immediately followed by the loud reports of 25mm cannon fire from one or more of the platoon's Bradleys. About half a dozen shots were heard in all.

"Cease fire!" Johnson yelled over the radio. Then, as he peered into his binoculars from the intersection on Highway 9, he roared at the platoon leader, "You just [expletive] killed a family because you didn't fire a warning shot soon enough!"

So it was that on a warm, hazy day in central Iraq, the fog of war descended on Bravo Company.

Fifteen Iraqi civilians were packed inside the Toyota, officers said, along with as many of their possessions as the jammed vehicle could hold. Ten of them, including five children who appeared to be under 5 years old, were killed on the spot when the high-explosive rounds slammed into their target, Johnson's company reported. Of the five others, one man was so severely injured that medics said he was not expected to live.

"It was the most horrible thing I've ever seen, and I hope I never see it again," Sgt. Mario Manzano, 26, an Army medic with Bravo Company of the division's 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, said later in an interview. He said one of the wounded women sat in the vehicle holding the mangled bodies of two of her children. "She didn't want to get out of the car," he said.

The tragedy cast a pall over the company as it sat in positions it had occupied Sunday on this key stretch of Highway 9 at the intersection of a road leading to the town of Hilla, about 14 miles to the east, near the Euphrates River. The Toyota was coming from that direction when it was fired on.

Dealing with the gruesome scene was a new experience for many of the U.S. soldiers deployed here, and they debated how the tragedy could have been avoided. Several said they accepted the platoon leader's explanation to Johnson on the military radio that he had, in fact, fired two warning shots, but that the driver failed to stop. And everybody was edgy, they realized, since four U.S. soldiers were blown up by a suicide bomber Saturday at a checkpoint much like theirs, only 20 miles to the south.

On a day of sporadic fighting on the roads and in the farms and wooded areas around the intersection, the soldiers of Bravo Company had their own reasons to be edgy. The Bradley of the 3rd Battalion's operations officer, Maj. Roger Shuck, was fired on with a rocket-propelled grenade a couple of miles south of Karbala. No one in the vehicle was seriously injured, but Shuck had difficulty breathing afterward and had to be treated with oxygen, medics said.

That happened after a column of M1 Abrams tanks headed north to Karbala in the early afternoon and returned a couple of hours later. Throughout the day, Iraqis lobbed periodic mortar volleys at the U.S. troops, and Iraqi militiamen and soldiers tried to penetrate the U.S. lines. Later, U.S. multiple-launcher vehicles fired rockets to try to take out the mortar batteries as AH-64 Apache helicopters swooped low over the arid terrain in search of other enemy gun emplacements.

It was in the late afternoon, after this day defending their positions, that the men of Bravo Company saw the blue Toyota coming down the road and reacted. After the shooting, U.S. medics evacuated survivors to U.S. lines south of here. One woman escaped without a scratch. Another, who had superficial head wounds, was flown by helicopter to a field hospital when it was learned she was pregnant.

Johnson said afterward that he initially suspected the driver might have been a suicide bomber, because he did not behave like others who approached the intersection.

"All the other vehicles stopped and turned around when they saw us," he said. "But this one kept on coming." Two days earlier, four 3rd Infantry Division soldiers were killed when a suicide bomber detonated explosives in his car at a checkpoint.

Lt. Col. Stephen Twitty, the 3rd Battalion commander, gave permission for three of the survivors to return to the vehicle and recover the bodies of their loved ones. Medics gave the group 10 body bags. U.S. officials offered an unspecified amount of money to compensate them.

"They wanted to bury them before the dogs got to them," said Cpl. Brian Truenow, 28, of Townsend, Mass.

[In Washington, the Pentagon issued a statement saying the vehicle was fired on after the driver ignored shouted orders and warning shots. The shooting, it said, is under investigation. According to the Pentagon account, the vehicle was a van carrying 13 women and children. Seven were killed, two were injured and four were unharmed, it said, without mentioning any men.]

To try to prevent a recurrence, Johnson ordered that signs be posted in Arabic to warn people to stop well short of the Bradleys guarding the eastern approach to the intersection. Before they could be erected, 10 people carrying white flags walked down the same road. They were seven children, an old man, a woman and a boy in his teens.

"Tell them to go away," Johnson ordered. But he reconsidered when told that the family said their house had been blown up and that they were trying to reach the home of relatives in a safer area.

"They look like they pose no threat at this time," one of the Bradley platoons radioed.

Johnson, a former Army Ranger who parachuted into Panama in 1989, fought in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and rose through the ranks, relented. He ordered his troops to tell the old man that the group could walk around the Bradleys.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company


Alleged Statement From Saddam Hussein Calls for Holy War

Tuesday, April 01, 2003
Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Iraqi information minister, reading a statement he said was from Saddam Hussein, called Tuesday for a jihad, or holy war, against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"The aggression that the aggressors are carrying out against the stronghold of faith is an aggression on the religion, the wealth, the honor and the soul and an aggression on the land of Islam," Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said on national television.

"Therefore, jihad is a duty in confronting them," he added, saying "those who are martyred will be rewarded in heaven. Seize the opportunity, my brothers."

The statement was issued as U.S. forces were reported within 50 miles of Baghdad and as B-52 bombers were pounding Republican Guard positions north of Karbala.

Saddam has delivered two televised addresses since the war began March 20. It was unclear why the Iraqi leader did not appear Tuesday.

"Strike at them, fight them," the statement said. "They are aggressors, evil, accursed by God. You shall be victorious and they shall be vanquished.

"Fight them everywhere the way you are fighting them today," it said. "And don't give them a chance to catch their breath until they declare it and withdraw from the lands of the Muslims, defeated and cursed in this life and the afterlife."


US Said Prepared to Pay 'High Price' to Oust Saddam

Mon March 31, 2003 03:30 PM ET
By Jim Wolf

AS SAYLIYA CAMP, Qatar (Reuters) - The United States is prepared to pay a "very high price" in terms of casualties to capture Baghdad and oust President Saddam Hussein, a senior official of the U.S. Central Command said Monday.

"We're prepared to pay a very high price because we are not going to do anything other than ensure that this regime goes away," the official told reporters, adding that U.S. casualties in the 12-day-old war had so far been "fairly" light.

"If that means there will be a lot of casualties, then there will be a lot of casualties," said the official, who spoke on condition that he not be named.

Referring to nights in World War II "when we'd lose 1,000 people," he added: "There will come a time maybe when things are going to be much more shocking."

Forty-six Americans have been killed, and 17 reported missing, in the Iraq war. Britain has reported 25 deaths.

The official, addressing reporters at the Central Command's forward headquarters in Qatar, said the net result of reporting by correspondents with the invasion force was creating a false impression of "constant, ferocious battle."

"That's not what's going on out there," he added. "It's military action at places primarily of our time and choosing."

The official said there were "an awful lot of ominous signs" that Saddam had prepared his forces to use banned chemical weapons. He listed the discoveries of chemical detection equipment, protection suits, new masks and atropine injectors used to protect against nerve agents.


"To me, as a soldier, it indicates that he was preparing his troops for the possibility of chemical operations," the official said. "Will people hesitate to act on those orders? I can only say, I hope so."

The official predicted Saddam would probably mount a "layered" defense of Baghdad, with his best troops, the Republican Guard, arrayed on the city's outskirts.

An inner cordon would most likely include officials of Saddam's ruling Baath party, militia and Republican Guard infantry, he added.

The official said the United States was paying a price for failing to protect uprisings by Shiite Muslims in Iraq's south and Kurds in the north after a U.S.-led alliance drove Iraqi invaders from Kuwait in 1991.

"I think we bear a certain responsibility for what we didn't do in 1991 and it's playing itself out on the battlefield," he said. "I mean you let somebody down once, you don't want to let them down twice. I guess I'm being too candid."

The official said the United States had underestimated the fear instilled by Saddam loyalists and the difficulty Iraqis would have revolting until Saddam was known to be ousted.

But he said he sensed anti-Saddam popular uprisings were "near" in the southern city of Basra and in Nassiriya, midway to Baghdad. "I think once the tipping point comes, it starts to spread," he said.


U.S. military will start 'shoot on sight' to prevent future suicide attacks in Iraq

Sun Mar 30, 2:28 PM ET
By ALMIN KARAMEHMEDOVIC, Associated Press Writer

NEAR NAJAF, Iraq - Nervous U.S. troops, wary of more guerrilla-style attacks by Iraqis in civilian clothing, warned approaching drivers Sunday they will be shot if they do not leave the area.

After fierce fighting, coalition forces surrounded the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf in central Iraq and were prepared — if so ordered — to go in and root out paramilitary forces whose stiff resistance has delayed the U.S. move on Baghdad.

U.S. forces have shut down all roads in the region north of Najaf — 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad — and any driver who approaches a military checkpoint will be shot on sight if they fail to stop or turn around after being warned, said Lt. Col. Scott Rutter, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division.

"This is a completely new dimension," Rutter said. "It is very difficult to distinguish civilians from possible fighters."

The purpose of the strict new measure is to deter attacks like the one on Saturday, when a taxi exploded at a checkpoint north of Najaf.

The driver was ordered to get out of his car and to open the front and back hoods. The car exploded when the back hood was opened, killing the driver and four soldiers. It was the first known suicide attack since the invasion began.

Meanwhile, tighter security is being imposed to protect soldiers from further attacks. A new sign, in large Arabic letters, warns drivers: "Leave The Area or We Will Fire." Soldiers will shout a final warning to any vehicle that disregards the sign, and then they will open fire.

The U.S. military is serious about enforcement: On Sunday, officers opened fire on two vehicles that failed to stop as they approached the checkpoint. One person was killed.

The U.S. military acknowledges the restriction places a burden on innocent Iraqi civilians, but that soldier safety must come first.

"Because of acts like this, probably you have to restrict that a bit more. It's unfortunate but necessary to ensure the safety of our soldiers," said U.S. Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, commander of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division.

Iraq's vice president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, indicated the attack was part of a coordinated effort to thwart invaders who can't be defeated by conventional warfare. He also raised the specter of terrorism on U.S. or British soil.

Reports on Iraqi state television called the attack a "blessed beginning," and praised the bomber.

"After he kissed a copy of the Quran, he got into his booby-trapped car and went to an area where enemy armored cars and tanks were gathered on the fringes of Najaf and turned his pure body and explosives-laden car into a rocket and blew himself up," the statement said.

"He wanted to teach the enemy a lesson in the manner used by our Palestinian brothers," the report said.

Saddam is admired by Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in part because he has doled out more than US$35 million to the families of civilians, gunmen and suicide attackers killed since fighting erupted in Israel some 30 months ago. Families of suicide bombers have received between $10,000 and $25,000 from the Iraqi leader.

At a Gaza City prayer rally held shortly after the U.S.-led assault on Iraq began, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Hamas movement, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, said Iraqi fighters should learn from the examples of Palestinian militants, who have killed hundreds of Israeli civilians in suicide bombings and other attacks in the latest fighting.

Iraqi dissidents and Arab media have claimed that Saddam has opened a training camp for Arab volunteers willing to carry out similar bombings.

The leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the guerrilla group which claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing Sunday in Israel, called on Palestinians to join the battle against the United States in Iraq by offering suicide operations. Islamic Jihad's military wing, the Al-Quds Brigades, has said vanguards of "martyrdom seekers" have already arrived in Baghdad.

"Whoever is able to march and reach Iraq, Baghdad, Najaf and blow himself up in this American invasion. ... This is the climax of Jihad and climax of martyrdom," said Abdullah Shallah, leader of Islamic Jihad.

Ramadan said thousands of Arab volunteers have been pouring into Iraq since the start of the war. Abdul-Baqi Saadoun, a Baath Party official in southern Iraq, said fighters were competing to die in suicide attacks.

"We all wish to blow ourselves up by explosive belts or assaults on the Americans, Zionists and the English," he told Arab satellite television channel al-Jazeera in an interview broadcast Sunday. "Every time they advance they are met with courageous, heroic men."


Kids became 'human torches'

Janabiyah, Iraq - Bloodied school books and children's shoes lie amidst animal carcasses on the road leading to the Ismails' farm in this village on the south eastern edge of Baghdad.

The main building of this hamlet, accessible via a checkpoint manned by militiamen, has been levelled, the second burned out and the third partially destroyed.

A neighbour told an AFP journalist that two missiles fired by coalition warplanes on Saturday night caught five sleeping families living on the farm.

The raid left 20 people dead - eleven of them children, seven women and two men. Ten others injured in the attack were taken to hospital.

The victims have already been buried according to Muslim tradition, but the smell of death still permeates the farm: the bombing also cost the life of several of the farm's animals.

Littered amongst the rubble spread over the grass were carcasses of four cows, their eye, nose and mouth cavities blackened by swarms of flies. Two dogs, sheep and chickens lay motionless nearby.

"Five children were turned into human torches in this house because of the gas cylinders inside," one of the two survivors said, wondering how God spared him while four other family members were wounded.

"Their bodies protected me because I was in a corner," he mused.

'Bush's democracy'

A neighbour, with missile debris in his hands, said: "That is Bush's democracy. They want us to welcome them with flowers. Look what they've done to our families."

Civilian casualties in Baghdad and its outskirts have mounted since the US-led war to topple President Saddam Hussein's regime was launched on March 20.

The coalition has relentlessly bombed the southern rim of the city, where elite Republican Guard units are believed to be guarding the approach to Saddam's seat of power.

AFP journalists have witnessed five such incidents in which civilians were the primary victims of a coalition strike, reporting at least 70 dead and dozens of wounded.

Iraqi officials have said hundreds of civilians have been killed and wounded since the start of the war.

US and British war planners have declared their intent to minimise civilian casualties and accuse the Iraqi leadership of deliberately placing military targets such as weapons and ammunition in residential neighbourhoods.

They have also suggested that some of the blasts might have been the result of misguided Iraqi anti-missile missiles. - Sapa-AFP


Air war weapon stockpile runs critically low
US needs to keep up supplies to back threat of new wars

Julian Borger in Washington
Tuesday April 1, 2003
The Guardian

With the war in Iraq threatening to last significantly longer than expected, US forces in the Gulf are in increasing danger of running out of some of their most important weapons in the air war.

In the first 11 days of the conflict, the US navy has fired 700 of its stock of 1,200 Tomahawk cruise missiles on ships and submarines in the region. Meanwhile, the air force and navy together have used 5,000 satellite-guided bombs, known as JDAMs, which account for more than 80% of the bombs dropped so far. The JDAM (joint direct attack munitions) arsenals on the five US aircraft carriers in the Gulf are already running low.

One solution is to switch to different types of weapons, which will happen anyway as the focus of the air campaign shifts from fixed to moving targets, from palaces and government buildings to tanks.

The other solution is to take more Tomahawks and JDAMs into the region. But even worldwide inventories would not last for many months, and US military planners, always thinking at least one war ahead, are concerned that the US might use all its firepower in Iraq and not leave enough to deal with another possible threat, such as a North Korean attack on Seoul.

There are about 13,000 JDAMs left in stockpiles around the world, according to air force estimates, and they can be shipped to the region relatively easily. They may need to be. US warplanes are maintaining a rate of 500 strike sorties a day (and 1,000 more support flights) as they continue to attack Baghdad and the Republican Guard divisions around the city.

There are also about 2,300 Tomahawk missiles left in American global arsenals, enough for about three more weeks of air strikes at the current rate. They are much harder to bring into action, as the missile arsenals of ships and submarines cannot be replenished at sea. More Tomahawks can only be brought to the battlefield by bringing new ships and submarines into the region.

JDAM have a strap-on guidance system added, mainly to 1,000lb or 2,000lb "dumb" gravity bombs, to make them "smart". They are therefore relatively cheap, about $20,000 each, a fraction of the cost of other guided bombs and missiles, such as the $600,000 Tomahawk.

Boeing, the manufacturer, has been turning JDAMs out around the clock since the Afghan war, when stocks ran seriously low. It has also increased its capacity over the past year, but monthly output is still only 1,500 a month, enough for only about two days at the current rate of sorties.

Military analysts say there is a limit to the extent the Pentagon can afford to move its arsenal of munitions around the world because it cannot leave itself unprepared to face a second, simultaneous threat elsewhere.

"The problem is that there has to be enough for this war and another one. We would have to be able to respond if the North Koreans move on Seoul," said Daniel Gouré, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute.

But the US armed forces will need fewer Tomahawks and JDAMs as the war progresses.

Bob Martinage, an expert at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said: "The Tomahawk is meant to go after fixed targets and they've hit most of those. There are only so many targets in that target set. When you shift to hitting targets of opportunity, you don't need them so much."

The same is true for JDAMs, which use satellite signals and GPS (global positioning system) to adjust the tail fins on the bomb, landing it within a few metres of the target. They need to be programmed with the targets' coordinates and are less useful against moving targets like tanks in battle.

Mr Gouré said as pitched battles get under way between coalition and Iraqi forces, coalition warplanes would be used less to bomb buildings and more to serve as close air support. "For that, Mavericks [heat-guided air-to-surface missiles] and laser-guided weapons," he said. "Laser-guided weapons are better than JDAMs when you start getting moving targets."

There are already signs that the coalition planners are running out of fixed targets to bomb. Over the past few days the bombers have gone back to presidential palaces and government buildings they had already attacked.

When it comes to trying to destroy bunkers, JDAMs and Tomahawks are not the ideal weapons. For that the US air force has the GBU 57, a 5,000lb satellite-guided bomb in a hardened casing that can penetrate 12 metres (40ft) of concrete or 30 metres of earth.

The Pentagon has already placed orders to replenish its stocks. Admiral William Fallon, the vice-chief of naval operations, said last week that the navy was requesting at least $3.7bn to replenish its munitions stocks to "restore inventories to pre-conflict levels".

In the short term, JDAMs can be reallocated from the air force to the navy. In the longer term, Boeing is due to double its production to 3,000 a month by the end of this year. The company will supply the air force and navy with a 250,000 of the guided bombs by 2008.


Syria defies U.S.; more volunteers stream into Iraq

Wednesday, April 02, 2003 Adar2 29, 5763
By Ze'ev Schiff and Nathan Guttman

Despite American warnings, in the last few days Damascus has expedited the passage of volunteers wishing to join the Iraqis in their war against the Americans. Thousands of volunteers, most of them Syrians, are thronging to the Mosul and Kirkuk regions in north Iraq.

It started with a few dozen volunteers, mostly from the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Damascus allowed them to cross the border to Iraq at the official border passes in its control. This went on until one of the volunteers' buses was hit in Iraq by a missile from an American plane, killing five passengers.

A few days ago American Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Damascus of transferring weapons to Iraq, but did not mention the volunteers. Yesterday the United States warned Syria and Iran again not to cooperate with terrorism and with Saddam Hussein's regime.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said at the AIPAC convention on Sunday that Syria will have to make a critical choice: "Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups and the dying regime of Saddam Hussein, or it can embark on a different and more hopeful course. Either way, Syria bears the responsibility for its choices, and for the consequences."

The administration made it clear yesterday that since that equipment delivery from Syria to Iraq - which according to Rumsfeld consisted mainly of night-vision goggles - no further deliveries had been observed.

The dozens of volunteers who first passed from Syria to Iraq came mostly from Lebanon and from the Palestinian refugee camps in it. Damascus let them cross into Iraq through the official border passes, and became the first state bordering with Iraq to permit the passage of volunteers. One of the buses driving the volunteers in Iraq was hit by an American missile and five of its passengers were killed.

Recently, the Syrians invited journalists to two border passes on the Iraqi border, claiming they are closed. Now it appears this was a deception. The volunteers are brought to the border far away from the official crossings and allowed to pass over on foot. Nearby, on the Iraqi side of the border, trucks await them.

The trucks do not go east toward Baghdad but northeast, to the Mosul and Kirkuk regions, on routes still free of American military activity. It is not known who receives these people when they arrive, where they stay or how they are organized.

At first, Palestinians and Lebanese were dominant among the volunteers, but as their numbers increased, the number of Syrians among them grew. Now the stream of volunteers is estimated at thousands. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz said in an interview two days ago that some 4,000 volunteers had arrived in Iraq from various Arab states. He did not say where they came from, but it is known that the Iranians, Jordanians and Turks do not permit the passage of volunteers to Iraq.

In the past, America has taken a lenient view of the Syrian aid to Iraq. A few months ago, Haaretz first reported of the Syrian military purchases for Iraq in various East European states. The equipment and weapons reached Syria's Atkia harbor and were transferred in convoys to Iraq. To this day, the exact quantities of arms, tank engines and planes transferred to Iraq by the Syrians are not known.

Washington kept its criticism down because the CIA estimated it was better to receive intelligence from Syria on Al-Qaida activities. Apparently this information helped the Americans in the past to crack Al-Qaida cells in Germany and Spain. After the war started, the Pentagon became more critical toward Damascus and the displeasure was reflected in Rumsfeld's accusations against Syria. However, it is not clear whether the Americans will try to intercept the movement of volunteers to Iraq.

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