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Thursday, May 18, 2006 

Anwar Al-Bunni arrested

"Yes, there has been a crackdown on opposition leaders in Syria,"

They are the words of Syria's liberal Ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha. "But," he adds confusingly, 'it is not the long term policy of Syria.'

He's not partisan. He's not calling for the government to be overthrown. He's not calling for a foreign invasion. He doesn't even condemn Bashar.

So why has Anwar Al-Bunni (above) been arrested? Has Bashar lost control, or suddenly found control?

Anwar Al-Bunni is the country's leading human rights activist. I've quoted him many times in the Syria News Wire, and just yesterday I watched him on Al Jazeera talking about the arrest of Michel Kilo.

His family say he was dragged away from his house after asking two police officers who came to his door to show him their arrest warrant.

Others are reporting many arrests across Syria in the biggest crackdown on opposition since Bashar came to power. There have been a handful of arrests since the start of his presidency, but it has been characterised by prisoner releases - the most recent was just a few months ago.

What is happening to Syria that causes the country's defenders to be locked up - Michel Kilo yesterday, Anwar Al-Bunni today. We can only hope that they'll be released in the next couple of days, and it's just Syrian government paranoia kicking in.

In these situations, we normally turn to Anwar for a comment. We normally rely on Anwar for the real version of events. Now it is Anwar who is the story.

The arrests mount:
- Kamal Labwani - arrested as he returned to Syria after holding talks with dissidents and US government officials in Washington
- Mohammed Ghanem - runs the surion.org website
- Michel Kilo - called for Damascus to sort out its relationship with Beirut
- Anwar Al-Bunni - defended the government's opponents

This is the country that we all should be proud of,Syria -- The long-haul cabbies and bus drivers waiting to pull away from the suburban strip now dubbed Iraqi Street can tell you how the war in Iraq is going. The roads are full of Iraqis headed this way.

"I drive every day, six people in a car," said Ali Fathy, an Iraqi driver who ferries families from the city of Mosul to Damascus, a 13-hour drive made treacherous by bandits and thugs, every day.

"People are leaving because they are scared. It's fear. I know it," he said with a grimace.

Iraqi accents can be heard all over Syria's capital this spring. Iraqi men fill the tables at al-Rada coffee shop downtown. Iraqi teenagers turn up at dusk at the al-Nafurah Cafe in the ancient market to sip tea and listen to a storyteller. One suburban neighborhood, a Shiite Muslim neighborhood that flourished after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, is again jammed with cars and newcomers.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis--estimates range from 500,000 to as many as 1 million--are estimated to be living in Syria three years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Syria, a country of 18.8 million that shares a porous 450-mile border with Iraq, has become an oasis for Iraqis darting from danger.

Three-month visas are routinely issued to Iraqis, and so are multiple extensions. Iraqis cannot receive work permits, but they can receive free health care and schooling.

"It's a shifting population--people come and people go--but it's amazing that Syria has been able to absorb them all," said a Western diplomat who has watched the war.

Rights group praises Syria

Even Human Rights Watch, which criticizes Syria's treatment of reform advocates, has praised the country's openness. In recent weeks in particular, Syria has shown empathy for Palestinian refugees as well.

"Middle East governments should follow Syria's example in accepting refugees and asylum seekers fleeing violence in Iraq," the organization said in a statement.

One editor at a small independent newspaper dispatched a reporter to chronicle Iraqi life on the edges of Syrian society more than a year ago.

"It was unsettling," said Yusef Maresh, whose small paper, al-Mubki, was shut down by the government over reports, unrelated to the Iraqi stories, that focused on corruption.

"Men are finding jobs in the restaurant business. Some buy goods in Iraq and bring them over the border to sell. . . . Some of the women are working in nightclubs. There's prostitution, and they end up making sex movies. They're poor and in need of work," Maresh said.

Syria is run by an autocratic regime, like many Arab countries, but it offers comforts to those in search of a peaceful way station. Battling economic woes, Syria still supports a broad middle class. Restaurants and cafes in Damascus are full. Streets are lively. Mosques and churches are open to the newcomers. And Syrians generally listen sympathetically to those in need from Iraq.

For the war-weary, the road to Damascus is cheap. One-way flights to Damascus cost $240, about half the price of a flight to Amman, Jordan. Taxi rides cost $30; bus trips are $15. But getting to Damascus by land has become another battle in the war. The main highway is a crapshoot, drivers said.

Robbers are a constant problem, and so are shootings on the highway. Fathy said he hits the gas pedal on the Iraqi highway and stops for no one.

"Everyday you hear stories. Lots of people are kidnapped on that road. Most people are staying for a little bit and then trying to decide what to do next," Fathy said.

Ahmed Kareem is a 34-year-old engineer who rode a bus this month from his home in the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad. The bus was stopped about a hour from Baghdad. Three men were forced from the bus and were shot dead, he believes, by Iraqi soldiers.

"I saw it," he said. "We didn't know what was happening or why."

"I wanted Saddam gone, but I thought things were going to be good," Kareem added. "I am so sad. My parents--they're 74 and 64 years old--they're sad. I love my country. My country means so much to me. And it is in so much trouble."

Where does he hope to live?

"I want to move everyone to Cairo," he said.

An emigre's fears

Laith Arawa left Mosul nearly two years ago. He first went to Amman, but he couldn't survive. The government gives nothing to Iraqis, he said, no health care or education. So he made his way to Damascus last year.

"I don't want to go back. The minute I see an American soldier, I feel something bad will happen," the 32-year-old said. "And the Iraqis? They aren't even trained properly." Khamed Suwadi, a doctor who was opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein, has been living in Damascus, on and off, for years.

"Two months ago, a friend of mine in Baghdad was kidnapped. They paid a ransom for him, but who knows what can happen," Suwadi said. "You just don't know who is going to kill you there or why."

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cspolar@tribune.com

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