Does Iraq arrest signal Syrian turnabout?

Captured insurgent backer was deported by Syria.

Yasser Sabawi al-Tikriti's appearance at a rally demanding the release of Saddam Hussein in the former dictator's home town Tuesday, turned into a costly mistake that Iraqi officials quickly seized on.

"Basically he was found, and caught red-handed giving money to the demonstrators, who he was trying to incite to violence,'' says Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser. "We believe he was a major fundraiser and a major supporter of the terrorists."

But there are indications that help in Mr. Sabawi's arrest came from an unexpected corner: Syria.

The country Iraqi officials and the Bush administration accuse of aiding Iraq's raging insurgency recently deported Sabawi to Iraq, according to an official at the Defense Ministry, who asked not to be named. This was first reported by the Associated Press, citing two anonymous sources.

However, Mr. Rubaie said "there was no Syrian help" in Sabawi's arrest, saying it was a lucky break brought about by the man's own carelessness. Asked if he knew whether Sabawi had been expelled from Syria, he replied: "I don't have any comment on that."

Sabawi's arrest came on a day when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice maintained US pressure on the Syrian regime, alleging that it and Iran are funding and supporting insurgents inside Iraq. "Syria and Iran must decide whether they wish to side with the cause of war or with the cause of peace," Rice said. She added that President Bush had not taken the possible use of force "off the table" with regard to Syria.

Thursday, UN investigators were expected to submit a report in New York implicating members of the Bashar Assad's regime in Damascus of master-minding the assassination of Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri earlier this year. That report is expected to be used by the US in its ongoing campaign to isolate the regime.

Nevertheless, Mr. Assad's Syria, a secular regime that is confronted by Islamist militants, has been taking steps to relieve the pressure from the US. It also worries that fighters radicalized in Iraq could return home and cause trouble for the regime.

"In the last few months, Syria has been cracking down on Islamic insurgents and is trying to open up an intelligence dialogue with the US and show that they are cooperating,'' says Josh Landis, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma who runs the influential Syriacomment blog and currently lives in Damascus.

Mr. Landis says he doesn't know what aid, if any, Syria provided in apprehending Yasser Sabawi, but said it fits a recent pattern. "This [arrest] is Syria's way of saying that we're ready for a deal - of course, a backdoor deal.... They are not ready for public humiliation. They don't want to be completely humiliated in front of an international audience. And the US doesn't want to hear this kind of yes. The US is insisting that Syria [make] a clear break with the past."

While circumstances of the arrest remain unclear, Sabawi and members of his family have long been sought inside the country. An official at the Joint Command Center in Tikrit, a body that coordinates Iraqi and US military efforts, says he only knew of the arrest from the media.

In July, the US treasury department added Sabawi, thought to be 35, and five of his brothers to a list of suspected terrorist financiers. Their father is Sabawi Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti, a half brother of Saddam Hussein and a former adviser to the deposed dictator.

Though Iraqi officials continue to insist that Syria and Jordan, a close US ally, are providing sanctuary to members of Mr. Hussein's Baath regime who are funding violence here, Syria has surrendered other alleged financiers in the past.

In February, Syria handed over their father, who was head of Iraq's intelligence service during the 1991 Gulf War and head of security until 1996, and who has been accused of ordering the torture and murder of Hussein opponents.

In September, Ayman, one of his sons, was sentenced to life in prison by an Iraqi court for bombmaking and providing support to insurgents.

"From the human rights activists in Syria, we have a picture that the Syrians have put the heat on anybody going to Iraq,'' says Landis. "They have arrested brothers, relatives going to Iraq to fight. They have arrested anybody coming back. Syria has been trying to crack down on these networks that are moving people through Syria into Iraq."

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