Some U.S. intelligence agencies believe that rogue elements of Syria's ruling elite have accepted millions of dollars in bribes in return for providing a safe haven for some of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, according to former and serving U.S. officials.
Chemical and biological weapons were taken by truck to a Syrian munitions compound near a military base near Khan Abu Shamet, about 50 miles northeast of Damascus, these officials told United Press International.
The chief suspects in the operation are Bushra al Assad, the sister of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, and her husband Gen. Assaf Chawkat, the No. 2 in Syria's military intelligence organization, the Mukhabarat.
U.S. officials -- most recently President George W. Bush -- have charged that Iraq is moving around production and storage facilities for chemical and biological weapons to hide them from U.N. inspectors charged with disarming the regime.
The allegation that Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein was trying to hide suspected weapons of mass destruction in Syria was first made -- somewhat hesitantly -- on Dec. 23 by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"We are in the process of verification of these (intelligence) reports," Sharon told Israeli television. "What we assume -- and again I say, we have not yet finalized the reports -- is that weapons that he (Saddam) wanted to hide -- chemical weapons, biological weapons -- were indeed transferred to Syria."
The claim was repeated and firmed up by his foreign minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, last month: "Those intelligence reports (about the alleged transfer) are solid," he said on Jan. 19, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
But the U.S. intelligence community is not so sure and appears to be divided.
At a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was questioned about reports that weapons of mass destruction had been moved around Christmastime from Iraq into Syria.
Armitage replied: "I would say there's been a debate in the administration ... (in) the intelligence community ... I don't think we know the definitive. I've seen the report you referred to. And I've seen other reports.
"Now, I can't give you a level of credibility on other reports as to whether missiles are in other countries. Those countries whom we've approached with our suspicions have vehemently denied (them)."
Many in the U.S. intelligence community believe the story to be an Israeli concoction. Former CIA counter-terrorism chief Vince Cannistraro strongly denounced it. "The CIA has found no corroborating intelligence on this," he told UPI.
A former Israeli intelligence official said the unwillingness to believe the Israeli reports was political at bottom: "The Bush administration does not want to confront the Syrians, even though they are bad news and working all along with Saddam," he said. Israeli intelligence had given the White House reports about the transfer, he said, but "the administration dismissed it."
"There is an institutional bias in Washington against taking on Syria," the former Israeli operative said.
"I think the White House thought Israeli intelligence off the wall or else an attempt at propaganda," said Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy.
A former senior Pentagon official said he believed the actions of Chawkat are "a private enterprise -- it's not by any means an official Syrian government policy." He added: "The CIA simply doesn't want the story told."
Gal Luft, a former analyst for the pro-Israeli Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has excellent Israeli and U.S. intelligence sources, also said that materiel was being moved to Syria -- "certain individuals are taking money and hiding weapons" -- but he cautioned it was "not government-sanctioned."
Judith Yaphe, a former senior CIA Middle East analyst, said: "It's palace intrigue." She explained that Bushra "is the brains. She's much smarter and more effective than Bashar, and she was disappointed at being passed over and not seeing her husband elevated."
Bushra works at undercutting her brother, she said.
Jordan is also engaged in similar activity in concealing small amounts of Iraqi weapons, although former Israeli intelligence sources lacked specific details.
"In countries like Jordan or Syria, you do not have a federal government in the same sense that you have in the United States. Instead you have guys who work for the government but they pursue their own agenda. I wouldn't exaggerate the importance of it."