BAGHDAD (AP) – The rifles are first taken apart and hidden in cigarette cartons and kerosene tanks. Younis al-Lehaibi and his sons then divide them into their trucks and head out to Iraq’s vast, dusty border with Syria. Their objective: to smuggle weapons to Syrian rebels who seek the overthrow of President Bashar Assad.
It’s a turnaround from the height of the Iraqi war six years ago, when weapons and fighters would cross from Syria to aid fellow Sunnis in Iraq.
Mindful of roaming border police, al-Lehaibi ditches the trucks once in Syria and travels the rest of the way on donkey. The Kalashnikovs are put back together, cleaned and handed over to a boy who hands him cash and brings the weapons into a nearby village.
Al-Lehaibi, 46, carefully examines his payment _ usually $1,000 in U.S. dollars _ to make sure the currency isn’t counterfeit. And then he slips back into Iraq _ eight hours after he left his home in the city of Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad.
Until a month ago, al-Lehaibi said, it wasn’t worth the effort. There wasn’t much profit in smuggling Kalashnikov rifles. The Syrian rebels had all the weapons they needed.
The spike in demand likely reflects how Syria’s uprising, as it approaches its first complete year, has transformed into an outright clash of forces as the opposition turns more to armed action. In another dangerous turn, more foreign fighters, possibly linked to al-Qaida, are believed to be crossing from Iraq to join the uprising against Assad.
The top U.S. intelligence official, James Clapper, said Thursday that a series of bombings against the Syrian regime in recent months in Damascus and Aleppo bear “the earmarks of an al-Qaida-like attack.”
For al-Lehaibi, pale man with reddish hair, the jump in demand for weapons means business has never been better.
“It’s about making a good, profitable business,” al-Lehaibi said, describing his weekly smuggling trips in an interview with The Associated Press.
He hastily added: “It’s also to help the Syrian people topple the tyrant who suppresses his nation for decades with severe brutality.”
A senior Iraqi security official in Baghdad told AP that intelligence over the last four months has revealed a flow of al-Qaida-linked fighters from Mosul into Syria, including two militants trained as suicide bombers. A Mosul police official confirmed the increase in gun smuggling to Syria but described it as limited.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Earlier this week, al-Qaida’s global leader Ayman al-Zawahri called on Muslims from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to join the Syrian uprising, which began in March as a peaceful protest but has grown into a bloody insurgency. Experts fear Syria will follow the same path Iraq charted just a few years ago: teetering on the edge of civil war, only to face an indefinite future of instability and, for many, despair.
A Kalashnikov rifle, known as an AK-47, usually sells for no more than $200, al-Lehaibi said. But their newfound demand has encouraged dealers to raise the wholesale price to about $700. Al-Lehaibi acts as the middle man, making a tidy profit by charging $1,000.
The prices jumped so much that even al-Qaida leaders in Iraq chided dealers for price gouging in a statement on a militant website the day after al-Zawahri’s edict.
“The arms brokers have raised the prices very high for the Mujahedeen who are trying to transfer that to their fellow rebels in Syria,” read the statement posted on the site associated with the Islamic State of Iraq, which is an al-Qaida splinter group. “Unfortunately there are gangs that claim they affiliate with the jihadist, but they benefit from such trade.
“Please make a special effort in this period for the continued flow of arms,” the statement urged.
Smuggling routes have existed for generations across the porous Iraqi-Syrian border, which stretches for 363 miles (605 kilometers). From the main legal border crossing in the Iraqi town of Rabiya, the lights of the Syrian village al-Yarubyah can be seen twinkling just a few miles (kilometers) away.
But most of the border is empty and marked only by a dirt berm with no signs or fences separating the two nations.
Al-Lehaibi has been smuggling for more than 10 years. He began sneaking food rations into the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq in the 1990s while Saddam Hussein was in power. Later, he smuggled satellite receivers, cigarettes and kerosene between Syria and the Kurdish region.
Sometimes al-Lehaibi trades his guns for sheep _ which gives him a convenient cover as a sheep dealer in the rare times border police have accosted him.
“We do fear being caught, but a fundamental principle of our work is to put fear behind us,” he said. “There are tighter security measures in Mosul, but there are dozens of smugglers who do this job after years of relations and help from bordering villages who have these needs.”
Al-Qaida and Syria’s homegrown opposition appear to have very different agendas. Syrian rebels have for the last 11 months demanded a more democratic system for the country, and even liken the Assad regime to al-Qaida.
The Assad regime’s “acts in torturing and killing its opponents are very similar to those used by al-Qaida members in annihilating anybody who disapprove with their dark believes and ideologies,” the Local Coordination Committees, one of the main Syrian activist groups, said in a statement this week. “This also comes clear in the teeming history of the Syrian regime support to the extremists and death militias in Lebanon and Iraq.”
At the height of Iraq’s insurgency, from 2005 to 2007, U.S. and Iraqi officials alike believed hundreds of al-Qaida militants used Syria as a breeding ground and byway into the fight. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for years accused Syria of failing to stop insurgents who traveled to Iraq to carry out horrific attacks, although he has shied away from joining the chorus of Arab nations that demand Assad’s ouster.
There’s no sign yet that the violence in Syria will spill across the border. But fears abound that the uprising could galvanize al-Qaida anew and spur more attacks and instability in Iraq.
The situation in Syria has “serious repercussions and dangerous consequences on the region,” parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni from Mosul, said in a statement Tuesday. “Particularly on Iraq.”
An Associated Press employee in Mosul, Iraq, contributed to this report.
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