WASHINGTON - The number of foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria has decreased noticeably in recent months, corresponding to a similar decrease in suicide bombings and other attacks by the group al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials.
"There is an early indication of a trend," Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, said in an interview. Border crossings from Syria that averaged 80 to 90 a month have fallen to "half or two-thirds of that over the last two or three months," Petraeus said.
An intelligence official said that "the Syrians do appear to be mounting a crackdown on some of the most hardened terrorists transiting through the country, particularly al-Qaeda-affiliated foreign fighters." The official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said there also was evidence that the Syrians had been stopping return crossings by foreign fighters leaving Iraq.
Other administration officials, while confirming the decrease in border crossings, said they were not yet prepared to attribute it to Syrian action, instead citing increased U.S. operations against al-Qaeda inside Iraq and stepped-up cooperation by terrorist "source" countries, such as Saudi Arabia, in prohibiting travel to Damascus.
U.S. intelligence has said Saudis form the biggest group of foreigners fighting with al-Qaeda in Iraq. Petraeus also said his command was uncertain of the reason for the decrease, adding that "we're watching it on the ground."
A National Intelligence Estimate last month attributed an apparent crackdown in Syria to that government's concern about the threat al-Qaeda posed to its stability. The estimate also assessed that Syria had stepped up its support to non-al-Qaeda groups to bolster their influence - and that of Damascus - in Iraq. Several Iraqi Sunni extremist groups opposed to the United States and al-Qaeda in Iraq are present in Damascus.
The Bush administration has said that interference from Iran and Syria helped spark and continues to fuel much of the sectarian violence in Iraq. Iran is charged with training, arming and funding Shiite militias.
The al-Qaeda in Iraq organization, which largely consists of Iraqi Sunnis, is said to be led by foreigners whose primary route into Iraq is through Syria. Syria is also believed by U.S. officials to be the primary route for foreign terrorists moving out of Iraq to return to their home countries in Arab countries, Europe and North Africa.
The United States is keeping close watch on Syria and North Korea, the Pentagon chief said yesterday, amid suspicions the North Koreans are possibly cooperating with Syria on a nuclear facility.
"I think it would be a real problem," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said on Fox News Sunday when asked how the Bush administration would view such an effort.
A senior U.S. nuclear official said Friday that North Koreans were in Syria and that Syria may have had contacts with "secret suppliers" to obtain nuclear equipment.
Andrew Semmel, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation policy, did not identify the suppliers, but said North Koreans were in Syria and that he could not exclude the possibility that the network run by disgraced Pakistan nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan may have been involved.
A state-run newspaper in Syria said in an editorial yesterday that "the magnitude of these false accusations might be a prelude to a new aggression against Syria." Al-Thawra said suggestion of such nuclear cooperation was "a flagrant lie."
North Korea's minister to the country's U.N. mission in New York, Kim Myong Gil, has dismissed the North Korea-Syria nuclear allegation as "groundless."