FEB 27 2005


Many in this region fear Damascus could be next on America's hit list.



Syria, long blamed for Middle East mayhem, seems to be bowing to U.S.-led international pressure to shed its image as a sponsor of regional instability.

Iraqi authorities say Syria accused among other things of aiding anti-Israeli extremists and fanning the insurgency in Iraq handed over Saddam Hussein's feared half brother, Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan. The decision came as an apparent goodwill gesture to ease tensions with the United States, which has demanded Damascus stop aiding Mideast militants and withdraw its 15,000 soldiers from neighboring Lebanon.


The handover of al-Hassan, who was No. 36 on the list of 55 most-wanted Iraqis compiled by U.S. authorities after the ouster of Saddam in April 2003, follows two recent deadly bombings in the Middle East that have escalated regional tensions and led some to point to possible Syrian involvement.


The Feb. 14 bomb that killed former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri and 16 others in Beirut set off huge protests by Lebanese who blamed Syria and Lebanon's pro-Damascus government for the attack.


The United States and France used the assassination to renew calls on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in line with a U.N. Security Council resolution passed in September. Washington also withdrew its ambassador to Damascus.


Responsibility for Friday's suicide bombing of a Tel Aviv nightclub that killed four Israelis was claimed by Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group that has some officials based in Syria.


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday charged that Syria was behind the suicide bombing, saying Islamic Jihad carried out the bombing on orders from its leaders in that country.


Israel did not immediately threaten retaliation, but the possibility was clear, considering Israeli warplanes bombed an Islamic Jihad base in Syria in 2003 after a suicide bombing at a restaurant in Haifa that killed 19 people.


Syria has denied involvement in the Hariri and Tel Aviv bombings, but al-Hassan's handover and apparent improvements in Syrian safeguards on its long, porous border with Iraq indicate that embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad is showing signs of complying with increasing demands to support U.S.-backed efforts to stabilize the volatile Middle East.


In Cairo on Sunday, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shaara indicated his government would gradually withdraw its troops from Lebanon, which along with ending its support for Palestinian and Lebanese extremist groups is a key U.S. demand.


Handing over wanted Iraqi fugitives and complying with demands on Lebanon could ease Syria's tense relations with the Bush administration. Many in this region fear Damascus could be next on America's hit list.


The U.S. State Department, which withdrew its ambassador to Syria after Hariri's assassination, had no immediate reaction, although spokesman Steve Pike said there was no change in the status of Ambassador Margaret Scobey.


The French ambassador to Washington, Jean-David Levitte, told CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer" that al-Hassan's handover "would be certainly a positive development, and that's exactly what we expect from Syria."


President Bush has said he does not know if Syria was involved in Hariri's killing, but has accused Damascus of being "out of step with the progress being made in the greater Middle East." The ambassador's withdrawal, he noted, indicated "the relationship is not moving forward."


Iraqi officials say al-Hassan and 29 other members of Saddam's former Baathist regime were rounded up in the northeastern Syrian town of Hasakah and handed over at the nearby Iraqi border to authorities there.


The catch is an important one as al-Hassan is widely believed to have been a leading figure in financing and orchestrating the ongoing anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq. The United States had offered $1 million for his capture.


Saturday's Baghdad newspaper Al-Mada reported that Syria provided information that led Iraqi authorities to breaking up 35 insurgent cells in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and arresting some 750 suspected militants.


The Syrians have a record of complying under pressure.


Under threats of invasion from Turkey, Syria expelled Turkish Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan in October 1998 after he had operated from Damascus for years.


In February 1999, Ocalan, head of the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, was snatched in a Turkish commando raid in Kenya and faced trial in Turkey. He is serving a life sentence for leading a deadly insurgency in favor of autonomy for Kurds in southeastern Turkey.


In 2000, Damascus handed over Egypt's most wanted terrorist, Rifaa Taha. Taha led the notorious al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya, which was responsible for a decade long bloody rebellion to overthrow the secular government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak . In return Mubarak convinced then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to resume peace talks with Syria, but the talks collapsed that year.


In recent years, U.S. officials have praised the assistance they have received from Syria in tracking and nabbing members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.







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