Saddam Hussein moved his chemical weapons to Syria six weeks before the war started, Israel's top general during Operation Iraqi Freedom says.
The assertion comes as President Bush said yesterday that much of the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was incorrect.
The Israeli officer, Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, asserted that Saddam spirited his chemical weapons out of the country on the eve of the war. "He transferred the chemical agents from Iraq to Syria," General Yaalon told The New York Sun over dinner in New York on Tuesday night. "No one went to Syria to find it."
From July 2002 to June 2005, when he retired, General Yaalon was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force, the top job in the Israeli military, analogous to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the American military. He is now a military fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He made similar, but more speculative, remarks in April 2004 that attracted little notice in America; at that time he was quoted as saying of the Iraqi weapons, "Perhaps they transferred them to another country, such as Syria."
The Israeli general's remarks came on the eve of Mr. Bush's speech to the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, in which the president addressed the issue of intelligence and defended the decision to go to war. "When we made the decision to go into Iraq, many intelligence agencies around the world judged that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. This judgment was shared by the intelligence agencies of governments who did not support my decision to remove Saddam. And it is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong," Mr. Bush said in remarks that were one of a series of speeches he has given recently on the war.
Mr. Bush's defense of the war echoed themes he has been pressing since before the war began and through his successful campaign for re-election. "Given Saddam's history and the lessons of September the 11th, my decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision. Saddam was a threat - and the American people and the world is better off because he is no longer in power."
An official at the Iraqi embassy in Washington, Entifadh Qanbar, said he believed the Israeli general's account, but that the Iraqi government is "basically operating in the dark" because it does not have its own intelligence agency. He said the issue underscored the need for the new Iraqi government to have control of its own intelligence service. "We don't have any way to find anything out about Syria because we don't have intelligence," Mr. Qanbar said. He said there is a high-rise building in Baghdad with 1,000 employees working on intelligence but that it has no budget appropriation from the Iraqi government and "doesn't report to the Iraqi government."
"Nobody knows who it belongs to, but you should understand who it belongs to," he said, in what was apparently a reference to American involvement.
An Iraqi politician, Mithal Al-Alusi, whose sons were both assassinated in Iraq last year, told The New York Sun's Eli Lake last month that his party would press the Iraqi government to renew the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Mr. Al-Alusi said he believes Saddam clearly had the weapons before the invasion. "They will find the weapons, I am sure they will," Mr. Al-Alusi said.
A spokesman at the Syrian embassy in Washington did not return a call seeking comment. But General Yaalon's comment could increase pressure on the Syrian government that is already mounting from Washington and the United Nations. Mr. Bush has been keeping the rhetorical heat on Damascus. On Monday, he said in a speech, "Iraq's neighbor to the west, Syria, is permitting terrorists to use that territory to cross into Iraq."
Also Monday, Mr. Bush issued a statement saying, "Syria must comply with United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1559, 1595, and 1636 and end its interference in Lebanon once and for all. "The resolutions call for ending Syria's occupation of Lebanon and for Syrian cooperation into the investigation of the assassination of a Lebanese politician, Rafik Hariri.
On Saturday, the White House issued a statement calling attention to Syrian prisoners of conscience such as Kamal Labwani. "The Syrian Government must cease its harassment of Syrians peacefully seeking to bring democratic reform to their country. The United States stands with the Syrian people in their desire for freedom and democracy," said the statement, issued in the name of the White House press secretary.
Yesterday, the State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, described Syria as an "oppressive regime." He also pointed to a recent report by a United Nations investigator looking into the assassination of Hariri. "The Syrian Government has failed to offer its full cooperation," Mr. McCormack said, citing the U.N. investigator's report that "details allegations of document burning by the Syrians, of intimidating witnesses."
When, during an interview with the Sun in April, Vice President Cheney was asked whether he thought that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction had been moved to Syria, Mr. Cheney replied only that he had seen such reports.
An article in the Fall 2005 Middle East Quarterly reports that in an appearance on Israel's Channel 2 on December 23, 2002, Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon stated, "Chemical and biological weapons which Saddam is endeavoring to conceal have been moved from Iraq to Syria." The allegation was denied by the Syrian government at the time as "completely untrue," and it attracted scant American press attention, coming as it did on the eve of the Christmas holiday.
Syria shares a 376-mile border with Iraq. The Syrian ruling party and Saddam Hussein had in common the ideology of Baathism, a mixture of Nazism and Marxism.
Syria is one of only eight countries that has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty that obligates nations not to stockpile or use chemical weapons. And it has long been the source of concern in America and Israel and Lebanon about its chemical warfare program apart from any weapons that may have been received from Iraq. The director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March of 2004, "Damascus has an active CW development and testing program that relies on foreign suppliers for key controlled chemicals suitable for producing CW."