Video: Report from Syria-Iraq border

By Richard Engel Chief foreign correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/7/2007 7:37:44 PM ET 2007-05-07T23:37:44

It's hard to know who's in the crowd at this packed Syrian border post. Refugees and truck drivers, or suicide bombers heading to Baghdad.

The Syrian officials have terrorist watch lists, but the officials seem overwhelmed.

On the Syrian-Iraqi border, it's easy to see how foreign fighters could sneak through.  Hundreds of cars and about 5,000 people pass through a single checkpoint every day. And local authorities say counterfeit passports are readily available on the black market.

But U.S. intelligence officials go further, accusing the Syrian government of giving al-Qaida safe passage, as well as directly aiding and funding  Baath party fighters once loyal to Saddam Hussein.

"Syria provides a sanctuary, a safe haven," says Dr. Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at American University of Beirut. "The Syrians oversee the trafficking of militants."

Militants like Yehiya Awad in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. Awad, a Baathist and Saddam supporter, is training to fight in Iraq.

"I am ready to commit any martyrdom attack," he says.

For Awad and others like him, getting to Syria is easy — Arabs don't need visas.

Once in Damascus, fighters blend in among Iraqi refugees who told us they support attacks on U.S. soldiers, and at nightclubs where singers praise Saddam, as customers shower dancers with cash.

But today, Syria's President Bashar al-Asad told NBC News his government is cracking down on al-Qaida.

"We have arrested more than 1,600," al-Asad says. "Of course we deported them."

Why? Because al-Qaida is stirring sectarian tensions here. Last month, they plotted to attack a Shiite mosque in downtown Damascus.

"When you have chaos and you have civil war, that will be contagious," al-Asad says. "That will affect Syria."

On the Iraqi side of the border, U.S. troops say Syria has recently tightened checks, cutting illegal crossings in half. But on many nights, groups of three or four fighters still sneak across.

"There's just a burm that marks the border, and you can just walk across it if you wanted to," says U.S. Army Capt. Greg Lee.

American soldiers are stretched thin here. Only a few thousand guard an area the size of New Jersey — hunting fighters with supporters on both sides of the border.

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