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Sunday, September 26, 2004

Syria brokers secret deal to send Iraqi atomic weapons scientists to Iran (Daily Telegraph)


Syria's President Bashir al-Asad is in secret negotiations with Iran to secure a safe haven for a group of Iraqi nuclear scientists who were sent to Damascus before last year's war to overthrow Saddam Hussein.


Western intelligence officials believe that President Asad is desperate to get the Iraqi scientists out of his country before their presence prompts America to target Syria as part of the war on terrorism.

The issue of moving the Iraqi scientists to Iran was raised when President Asad made a visit to Teheran in July. Intelligence officials understand that the Iranians have still to respond to the Syrian leader's request.

A group of about 12 middle-ranking Iraqi nuclear technicians and their families were transported to Syria before the collapse of Saddam's regime. The transfer was arranged under a combined operation by Saddam's now defunct Special Security Organisation and Syrian Military Security, which is headed by Arif Shawqat, the Syrian president's brother-in-law.

The Iraqis, who brought with them CDs crammed with research data on Saddam's nuclear programme, were given new identities, including Syrian citizenship papers and falsified birth, education and health certificates. Since then they have been hidden away at a secret Syrian military installation where they have been conducting research on behalf of their hosts.

Growing political concern in Washington about Syria's undeclared weapons of mass destruction programmes, however, has prompted President Asad to reconsider harbouring the Iraqis.

American intelligence officials are concerned that Syria is secretly working on a number of WMD programmes.

They have also uncovered evidence that Damascus has acquired a number of gas centrifuges - probably from North Korea - that can be used to enrich uranium for a nuclear bomb.