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Up to 30,000 terrorists in Iraq, intelligence chief says

Ba'athists, former army members among militants

CAIRO -- As many as 30,000 well-trained terrorists are actively operating throughout Iraq at the behest of former regime leaders based in Syria, Iraq's intelligence chief said in yesterday's edition of a pan-Arab newspaper.

Major General Mohammed Abdullah al-Shahwani told the daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat that the men, who are well organized and trained, include former Ba'ath Party members, Islamic militant groups, and unemployed former army members.

"We officially call them terrorists," he told the London-based newspaper. "They are between 20,000 and 30,000 armed men operating all over Iraq, mainly in the Sunni areas where they receive moral support from about 200,000 people."

Shahwani said terrorist attacks could affect Iraq's Jan. 30 election for a constitutional assembly, predicting that some people will stay away from polling stations because they are afraid of possible assaults.

"Whether these attacks would increase or decrease, this depends on the election's result. But our expectation, as a security organ, is that the attacks will recede and end in one year," he said.

He said the insurgents receive financial support from former leading Ba'athist Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed and Sabaawi al-Hassan, a half brother of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Ahmed and Hassan are in Syria and easily moving in and out of Iraq, Shahwani said. Hussein's former deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, also is working with insurgents, he said.

President Bush has warned Syria against "meddling" in the internal affairs of Iraq, and according to a report in The New York Times yesterday, the United States is weighing additional sanctions on Syria to push it to take action against Iraqi supporters of the insurgency who are operating from its territory.

Syria has denied Iraqi accusations that terrorists are receiving support from Damascus and freely crossing the border. Iraq also has accused Iran of allowing the insurgents to cross into Iraqi territory.

The Iraqi intelligence chief said he had seen no changes in Syrian and Iranian policies following the Iraqi accusations.

"The problems are still coming from these two countries because the borders are open and the support is going on to serve their interests," he said.

On Sunday, the State Department's number two official -- Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage -- said Syria had improved security along its border with Iraq but needed to do more to keep armed supporters of Hussein from sneaking across.

Shahwani said insurgent activities in Fallujah have receded since a US-Iraqi military campaign last month but leading members fled to different areas.

He named "hot areas" where insurgents were active, including the so-called Sunni Triangle, eastern Diyala Province, and areas north of Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.

He also said armed groups were seen searching people in the northern city of Mosul and in Baghdad areas such as Haifa Street and the districts of Azamiyah, Doura, and Ghazaliyah, as well as the road leading to the airport.

Shahwani was pensioned by Hussein in 1984 and defected from Iraq in 1990. He formed an opposition military group backed by the US administration. Hussein executed several members of his group, including Shahwani's three sons.

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