by Kate Seelye
We left Damascus before dawn, headed for the Abu Kamal
border crossing into Iraq. It's a grueling six-hour journey across a
monotonous landscape, broken up only by the spectacular Roman ruins of
Palmyra. I'd crossed the same stretch of desert just two months earlier
to report a story for public radio in America. The 650-mile stretch of
no-man's land that separates Syria from Iraq has been a major source of
tension between Washington and Damascus.
During the early months of the war in Iraq, hundreds,
possibly thousands, of Arab fighters were bussed across the Syrian
border into Iraq courtesy of Saddam Hussein's government. Officials
from the U.S. and Iraq have routinely accused Syria of not taking
enough measures to prevent insurgents from crossing over its border to
But in the past six months, Syria has begun to reinforce
a lengthy sand berm separating the two countries and adding patrol
posts every few kilometers.
In further signs of cooperation, last February, Damascus
handed over a high-ranking relative of Saddam Hussein's, found, the
government claims, hiding in a town in northern Syria. Butheina
Shaaban, a government minister in Damascus, told us Syria was doing its
best to seal its frontier with Iraq, but that no border is
A couple of hours outside of Damascus, we pulled off the
highway to photograph the turnoff sign to Baghdad. Within moments, and
out of nowhere, intelligence officers arrived ordering us to stop
filming and to follow them. It took the best efforts of our experienced
Syrian fixer -- who had all the permits in order -- to put us back on
Palmyra, one of the Roman Empire's most important
eastern caravan cities, is an oasis in the Syrian desert, and Steve
couldn't resist stopping to take a look. Walking among the ancient
city's high colonnades, monumental gateways and temples, I tried to
convince him to take a camel ride. But the sight of the animal's
drivers drinking beer before breakfast persuaded him it might not be
such a good idea.
When we finally reached Al Hiri around midday, we found
a dusty Syrian border town resembling thousands of other third world
border towns -- although this one's proximity to Iraq gave it an uneasy
edge. Winding our way through the narrow back streets, we looked for
the home of one of the town's tribal leaders, Sheikh Ratha Baruth
We found Dulaimi in his front yard, dressed in faded army fatigues, and
showing off a red, white, and blue plastic sheeting he'd fashioned on
his front gate to resemble a U.S. flag. Dulaimi laughed that he put it
there to stop U.S. military planes from dropping a bomb on him.
Sheikh Ratha Baruth Dulaimi, a
tribal leader in the border town of Al Hiri, talks with Kate Seelye.
A warm and jovial presence, Dulaimi gave Steve a big
bear hug and a kiss, and led me by his large, rough hand to a seat
under a blossoming rose bush. Dulaimi reportedly fought as an insurgent
in Iraq but he made it clear to Steve and I that we and any other
visiting American journalists were welcome in his home. A curious crowd
gathered, listening to Dulaimi, who sat across from me wearing Ray Bans
and a large embroidered robe, while I asked him in Arabic about the
mood here. Were Syrians still crossing into Iraq to fight? Were the
townspeople concerned about an American army base on their doorstep?
How tense was it in this border town?
But as we discovered many times over in our six days in
Syria, decades of totalitarian rule have trained a fearful nation to
say a lot, while revealing little. Dulaimi's expansive and evasive
manner was no exception.
Yes, he had been in Baghdad. He even described being
bombed there. But was he an insurgent? If he was, he wasn't telling us.
The men in the crowd were more forthcoming, explaining with great
passion that as Muslims it was their duty to wage jihad against
All I could get from Dulaimi for certain, besides a rose
and an invitation to be his third wife, was news that he'd received a
directive from Damascus urging him to stop fighters from going into
Iraq. "We were told to prevent crossings over the border. Anyone who
does cross takes full responsibility for his actions and therefore goes
to destruction. Assad is the boss," he told us, "and whatever he says,
This directive appeared to be another sign that the Syrian government
-- under tremendous pressure from Washington -- is trying to cooperate
with U.S. demands.
On Syria's main road to Iraq, a
sign marks the turnoff to Baghdad.
By late afternoon, we left the affable Dulaimi and
hurried on to the Abu Kamal border crossing. Closed by the Americans
since their Fallujah offensive last fall, the crossing is now a dead
zone -- stripped of the usual noise and bustle of border traffic.
Across the Iraqi side, a few hundred yards from the Syrian Customs
office, we saw a large American military base wrapped in barbed wire,
an American flag flying overhead.
Before we could start filming, we were ushered into the
customs area to go through the same frustrating drill we had
encountered the last time we tried to film. No, the customs officer
informed us, he had not received a fax from the Ministry of the
Interior allowing us to film the border post or surrounding area. So,
we would not be shooting the border or talking to border officials
without the fax in hand.
Our fixer -- Syrian journalist George Baghdadi -- began
patiently explaining that the Ministry of Information had reassured us
many times that we could film here.
The officer tried to call Damascus, but it was a
Saturday and no one with any authority could be found. Between cups of
bitter Arabic coffee, I pleaded with the border officer to let us film.
We've come all the way from the United States to see this border, I
implored. We want to show the world what Syria is doing here. We would
hate to leave with a bad impression of Syria.
As we sat waiting, uncertain of an answer, events took a
surreal turn. The Syrians gathered around a small TV set to watch the
wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles.
After this oddly reassuring scene, the customs officer
finally softened his stance. He told us we could film the sand berm
along the border, but we couldn't do interviews. And we could film the
U.S. base, but only at the risk of being shot. American military
officials, he told us, had warned the Syrians that unless the base was
informed in advance of visiting camera crews, they might open fire.
With the sun sinking fast, we took our chances, pinned to the wall of
the customs building, nervously grabbing shots of Camp Gannon. Then we
hopped in our car and trailed the Syrians along a dusty track to get a
closer look at the sand wall the Syrians had constructed under U.S.
Camp Gannon, a U.S. base at the
I strolled along the berm, which was three or four feet
high, and noticed that in the last two months, the Americans had been
busy adding an even higher berm several hundred feet away -- an extra
defense against insurgents and gun smugglers operating in this no-man's
Back at the crossing, we snatched a few more minutes of
filming before sunset, a prime time for attacks. In the fading light,
we could sense a growing nervousness among the Syrian border guards. It
was time for our crew to leave and begin the long drive through the
night back to Damascus. Two days later, we read that three U.S. marines
had been wounded at the base in Al Qaim in a three-car suicide bombing
just outside Camp Gannon -- confirming how dangerous the Syrian-Iraqi
Kate Seelye is an award-winning Middle East
correspondent for National Public Radio, with a background in film and
television production. Ms. Seelye received a Fulbright grant to
research her documentary feature, "At Home in the Garden of Eden." Watch a preview of her film.
Watch full coverage of Kate Seelye's reports on recent events in Lebanon and Syria in the May 17 broadcast of FRONTLINE/World. (Check local listings.)
For more history on the complex relationship between Lebanon and Syria, and the
role religion has played in political life, read two additional reports from correspondent
• Lebanon's History
of Occupation - In one form or another, Syria has exerted its influence over Lebanon
for nearly a century.
• Lebanon's Religious
Mix - Hariri's assassination has united some sects and divided others.
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